home about media center archive history links subscribe

Research on the Open Secret:
Possible Implications for
Don't Ask Don't Tell

Andrew D. Reichert
Texas A&M University

April 21, 2009
As a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at Texas A&M University, I am currently conducting research on the open secret, a phrase sometimes used to describe situations where a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) person's sexuality is known, but not discussed.  For example, Kenji Yoshino, a dean and law professor at Yale University and the author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, notes that, "Many gay people have had this experience of the 'open secret.' I was gay – she knew I was gay – I knew she knew I was gay ... [But] because I would never acknowledge our collective knowledge, she could not do so either.  So we carried on – each week more strained than the last" (p. 62).   

To date, I have collected 113 responses to an online survey regarding the open secret, from which I am currently conducting follow-up interviews with many of my respondents.  The participants represent a variety of demographics, including sex, race, sexual orientation, and age, ranging from 18 to 77 years.  Additionally, the participants represent a variety of educational and vocational backgrounds, including those who have served in the military, both before and during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Although still preliminary, one theme that appears to be emerging from the qualitative data is the concept that a GLBT person's coming out of the closet may actually help bring people closer together, rather than drive them further apart.  The Don't Ask Don't Tell policy assumes that the presence of openly GLBT servicemembers will undermine unit cohesion and morale, when actually, it is the secrecy and anxiety associated with the policy that may be what truly undermines unit cohesion and morale.  One soldier, for example, commented that after he came out, he was able to talk more openly and honestly with others in his unit, many of whom already suspected that he was gay, but were unable to mention it, for fear of getting him in trouble.  Of course, he could not mention it either, and yet, it was there – people knew, but could not talk about it. 

This scenario is not unique to just one soldier, as it is a theme emerging from several of my interviews.  It appears that it may be the secrecy – the knowing, but not knowing for sure preoccupation that may relate to stress and mistrust that may then lead to the undermining of unit cohesion and low morale.  Indeed, in his book, Modern Homosexualities, Peter Davies writes that a GLBT person's "partial disclosure is inherently unstable" (p. 79) and puts social strain on friendships.  The best approach, according to Davies, is when either nobody knows or everybody knows. 

The military's policy is designed so that nobody knows, but in reality, people do know; yet, they cannot confirm their knowledge by asking or telling, and that is what seems to be problematic.  If GLBT servicemembers were allowed to simply disclose their sexual orientation – get it out in the open, let everyone talk about it, and then move on – the secrecy and mistrust could dissipate.  The policy suggests that people in the military cannot handle having an openly GLBT person in their midst.  This would seem to seriously underestimate the intelligence and abilities of America’s men and women in uniform.


About the Author

Andrew D. Reichert is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at Texas A&M University.  An ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, he holds a Master of Science in Educational Psychology from Texas A&M University and a Master of Divinity from Duke University.  He can be reached at AReichert@tamu.edu

Copyright (c) 2009 Andrew D. Reichert.  All rights reserved