Back when it was implemented, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was considered an advance over the witch hunts of the past.
Irony is lost on Democrats. Today they are pillorying candidates and politicians such as Joe Biden, on positions they took in the past - the far distant past. They are shaming these folks for not being "woke" in an era where the term had no meaning, other than what happens when the alarm clock goes off. If a politician back then tried to run on the far-left platforms espoused today, they never would have been elected to office. Indeed, today, I think the same is true, outside of wacky liberal enclaves. AOC might win in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but someone like her would not be elected dog catcher in Ohio. And you have to win Ohio to win the Presidency.
One of the polices that is being dragged up from the past is the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy instituted by the Clinton administration. This policy was an improvement from the past, but to hear today's "progressives" tell the story (about an era before they were born) it was a retrograde action, forcing gays back into the closet. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When I moved to Washington DC - or Northern Virginia (which used to be part of DC before the slave compromise of 1842, but that's another story about politics) - life was a lot different back then. Gay people were largely not "out" at work, and there was a rash of gay-bashings going on in DC and indeed, nationwide. By gay-bashing, I don't mean someone calling a transgender person by the wrong pronoun, or even some form of verbal harassment. No, the bash was real - usually from a baseball bat, that left the victims either dead, or with serious brain injuries, paralysis or the like. It wasn't a fun time. But hey, we had it so much easier than today's put-upon generation, right?
In the military, they had squads of people whose job it was to ferret out the gays and lesbians and then have them dishonorably discharged from the military. A friend of mine, in the vaunted Navy JAG corps told me about this, and it sickened her to the point where she asked for a transfer. They would try to "out" a lesbian from the Navy and then interrogate her until she "gave up" the names of at least three other lesbians - as if they were going against a spy ring. If you couldn't come up with three names, well, dishonorable discharge for you. If you did, maybe a general discharge would be your reward.
People who gave their entire careers to the military - decades - were ousted, often only a few years from retirement. Some were actual combat veterans, highly decorated. It made no difference - if they found out about you, you were out, period.
Now, oddly enough, the 1980's was a time of closeted sex - a lot of closeted people had sex in public restrooms and parks. And weirdly enough, (or obviously enough) the Pentagon was a hotbed of homosexual liaisons. Folks in the military would go jogging in nearby "LBJ" park (named after Lady Bird Johnson). There was a lot of sniggering and jokes about the "BJ" in "LBJ Park" of course.
But the Pentagon itself was also a place where a lot of gay sex went on. Before 9/11, you could just walk into many places in the Pentagon, without ID or permission. There was even a mall there, you could go shopping at - it was the world's largest office building, and had its own metro stop. Because it was built during the "separate but equal" Jim Crow era, there were separate black and white restrooms, which were later integrated. This meant there were a lot of restrooms in the Pentagon, many in quiet, out-of-the-way places. These were targets for the gay enforcers, who would place undercover officers in the restrooms to arrest "perverts" and then try to blackmail them into "giving up" the names of other gays.
This still goes on in many parts of the country, where local police departments "shake down" out-of-town travelers who try to "hook up" even on Grindr or Adam-4-Adam. They threaten to expose these businessmen, who may lose their livelihoods or marriages, unless they plead guilty to "disturbing the peace" and pay a fine in the thousands of dollars. Not much has changed.
But with the advent of AIDS as well as the increased acceptance of gays (and the proliferation of hookup sites on the internet) the prevalence of "tearoom sex" has dropped off to nearly nothing. People meet on their phones now, not on parks or public restrooms, and this is a good thing. Of course, like I said, this doesn't stop the cops from trying to "sting" people.
Getting back to the "glory" hole days in the Pentagon, it was a sad situation for gays. In addition to those "outed" in restroom stings, were service people who were "outed" by their public activities (political) or by jealous coworkers. Under the rules before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" the service was obligated to discharge homosexuals from the service. The DADT policy changed all that. The homo-squads were disbanded and no one went searching for gays in the military. I suppose they still monitored the restrooms, though - having sex in public places is an annoyance to others and still illegal, even today (and no one is proposing legalizing it, not even AOC!). I think the last person busted for notorious restroom sex was a Republican.
For a career military officer or enlisted person, this meant they could live with who they wanted to live with, love who they wanted to love, and so long as it wasn't brought up at work, it was no big deal. And that pretty much was life in the United States in the late 1980's and 1990's. People were tolerant, so long as you gave them an "out" they could pigeonhole you with - for example, "confirmed bachelor" like Charles Nelson Reilly, who was not gay, just "flamboyant".
Of course, even back then, the DADT policy had its detractors, who argued that it didn't go far enough. But of course, that is easy to say in hindsight. Bill Clinton had to walk a very fine line to get some progressive policies enacted, while dealing with a vast majority of the country who was (and still is) very conservative. Bear in mind for every protester who thought DADT didn't go far enough, there were 10 or 100 who thought it went too far.
Politics is the art of the possible and what was possible today was not possible back then. Gay marriage? Not in my lifetime, for sure. Well, times changed, dramatically, and that is in part what worries me. Radical changes cause a lot of push-back, and we are already seeing a lot of push-back from the far right. It seems odd to me that in 2020, we are still having to deal with Nazis and anti-Semites. It seems odder still that we are dealing with communists or people who really think you can just give out money to everyone in the country. We really haven't "progressed" much, it seems.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell was baby steps. It was the first step in changing very entrenched policies and views. And without DADT, we would not be where we are today. Without this first step, people would not have been ready for the second. Because it was only when people realized that so many of the people they knew - decent, hard-working people who just want to be left alone - were gay, they were receptive to more progressive measures.
You may recall back then, the Republican obsession with "foxholes." We were told that if DADT was allowed to stand, servicemen would be sexually harassed by gay men in their foxholes - which sounds a lot like a double-entendre. But such were the stereotypes back then, hence the Village People's hit song "In the Navy". The reality was something different, of course. Most service people I have spoken with have told me that sex is the last thing you are thinking about when on board a ship or when deployed. In fact, there probably have been more incidents of heterosexual malfeasance and harassment in the military than homosexual. Because women in the military started becoming a real thing at about the same time.
Of course, these changes do mean they produce some real problems, but we have dealt with these problems for the most part. Today, the "burning issue" for many is transgender people serving in the military, which is something Trump opposes and has signed executive orders against. It doesn't help any that the most famous transgender person in the military gave away the largest trove of military secrets - in direct violation of their oath - in the history of the military, to an organization affiliated with the Russian intelligence service. And yet many want to make he/she out to be a "transgender hero". Sorry, but no sale.
But it illustrates how far we have come and how trivial our problems are today compared with the past. Yes, today, we are reading about murders of transgender people. But for the most part, these are murders of sex workers who are transgender, and the murder rate among sex workers is scandalous. Trying to make this into a "transgender hate crime wave" is a little bit of a reach. Yes, we need to put a stop to the dead hooker crime wave, regardless of gender or whatever. It is scandalous - and no one seems to care.
But getting back to my point - and I did have one - judging the politics of yesteryear, often years before one was born, in an era one never lived in, is a dangerous game. It is all-to-easy to say what shoulda or coulda been done. And in a way, it is cowardly, too, to hide behind today's progressive politics in judging the actions of our forebears, who did the best they could with the tools available to them at the time at their disposal.
If you go down this road, you can pick apart the records of Jimmy Carter, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Bobby and John F. Kennedy, or even Roosevelt - who not only put Japanese in internment camps, but also sent back an entire shipload of Jews to be slaughtered by the Nazis. This doesn't mean that Roosevelt was worse than Hitler. It just means he was a product of his times - a time when antisemitism was part of the fabric of American life, and not just five basement Nazis on 4-chan.