WASHINGTON D.C. â€” In the nine months since being given the legal right to serve openly in the military, gay service members are increasingly speaking out about the double lives they led under the â€œDonâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tellâ€ law.
As gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans and their supporters celebrate June as â€œPride Month,â€ two senior officers, a Navy woman and an Army man, both with more than 20 years of service accepted a request to speak about the issue to foreign journalists visiting the Pentagon.
The officers asked not to be named because of the personal nature of the information they shared. They spoke of the stress of serving two decades on a job in which they lived in guarded secrecy about their personal lives and constant worry of being exposed and discharged under the law.
â€œIt was the secrets, the guarding of every word, hoping you didnâ€™t use the wrong pronoun,â€ the soldier said, recalling his fear of referring to his partner as â€œhe.â€
â€œThat eats at your soul,â€ he added, â€œand you feel pretty hollow when you have to live that kind of lie.â€
While senior military leaders said the change had no impact on readiness and little to no effect on most of the 1.2 million members on active duty, gay troops describe the repealâ€™s effect on them as life changing.
During three war deployments, the soldier said, he could not bond with others as they decompressed from the fighting to learn about each otherâ€™s families, influences and worldviews. â€œIt wreaks havoc on your ability to deal with stress,â€ he said.
Back home, even calls he received from his leaders on weekends were stressful, the soldier said. â€œEvery time my phone rang and I saw the caller ID,â€ he recalled, â€œI thought, â€˜Iâ€™m about to be fired. Every single time I was called at home, regardless of the reason for the call, for a split second, I thought, â€˜This will be the call where I get fired.â€™ It was always in the back of my head.â€
When the lawâ€™s repeal took effect Sept. 20, 2011, you could almost hear the collective yawn from the straight military community, he said. â€œThere was this feeling of relief [among gay troops] that, not only do I feel like a full-fledged citizen of the country that I have put my life on the line to defend more than once, but now I can do my job more efficiently.â€
While the military as a whole goes through its transformation with openness, individual members contemplate how far to go with theirs.
Other than being named in the media, the soldier now lives an openly gay life. He recently married his partner of 12 years. The couple hopes to adopt a child, a prospect that was impossible before, the soldier said, because â€œthe idea of teaching a child to lie in order to protect his â€œfathersâ€ was an ethical nonstarter.â€
The female sailor continued to stay quiet about her personal life, but says the repeal gave her the freedom and confidence to be honest about her true identity.
â€œIf you ask, I will tell you,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s the decision I made on Sept. 20. While Iâ€™m not going to stand up and announce it, I also wonâ€™t turn a blind eye to those younger members who are putting their lives on the line.â€
The sailor recalled that as a lieutenant, she had a young enlisted sailor come to her wanting to confide in her about her own sexuality. â€œI cut her off and said, â€˜You cannot say that next sentence that I think youâ€™re going to say, because Iâ€™m an officer.â€ Under Donâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell, the officer would have been required to report it up the chain of command.
During that time, the officer experienced a bitter breakup that caused her to put her personal life on hold and reinforced two decades of silence about who she is. The breakup, with a woman, who was leaving the military, became messy. The two owned property together. There were threats of discharging the young lieutenant who had hoped to make a career of the military, as so many in her family had.
â€œI got threatened with being discharged,â€ she said. â€œBeing thrown out of the military at the five or six year mark wasnâ€™t in my plans. … It caused me to shut down my life and I said, â€˜Iâ€™ll just do the military thing,â€™ because I just couldnâ€™t take the pressure from being threatened.â€
After Congress passed the repeal in December 2010, the services had to conduct training before Defense Department leaders could inform the President that the repeal did not harm readiness. The sailor attended an all-Navy training session.
â€œI caught myself wanting to cry, three or four times.â€ She was fundamentally overwhelmed, by the conversation in the room that let her know homosexuality, largely, had become a nonissue to todayâ€™s service members.
â€œI was just so proud that it really had come to the point where this was no big deal,â€ she said.
Others were beginning to see the â€œdisconnectâ€ that she and other gays and lesbians had lamented for years.
â€œMany other militaries beat us to the punch on this,â€ she noted. When the United States built a 50-nation coalition in Afghanistan, â€œwe didnâ€™t go to NATO and say, â€˜Only deploy your straight people.â€™â€ Yet those troops served, ate, slept, fought and bled together without regard to sexual orientation, she said.
â€œIf you are genuinely operating as a professional military, sexual orientation shouldnâ€™t be part of the discussion,â€ she added.
Both officers noted the recent evolution of gay rights in the United States. The military they entered could not have accepted open homosexuality, they acknowledged.
â€œIf you served in this military in the 1970s, you would not recognize it now,â€ the sailor said. â€œPeople who say we shouldnâ€™t serve openly are out of date and out of touch with todayâ€™s military. The young service members genuinely donâ€™t care.â€
Repeal of DADT was debated fervently for more than a year, but took effect officially with little fanfare.
â€œA small group of us went [to the Pentagon office of a former senior civilian leader who is gay], popped a couple bottles of champagne and said, â€˜Wow. It really did happen,â€™â€ the sailor said. â€œThere were plenty of us who, honestly, never thought this day would come.â€
Now that it has, she added, â€œIâ€™m convinced you can walk into every office of this building and find someone who is a little more confident in what they do and a little less worried, just because of what has happened in the past six to eight months.â€
Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen is widely credited with being a powerful force behind the repeal of Donâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell. As then, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen removed perceived partisanship from the issue by telling a congressional committee in February 2010 that overturning the ban was the right thing to do, and that it would not harm readiness.
â€œNo matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,â€ Mullen said then. â€œFor me, personally, it comes down to integrity â€” theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.â€
Congress voted to repeal the law in December 2010 and President Barack Obama signed a certification to Congress in July 2011, that military leaders agreed the services were ready to move forward without DADT.
â€œI canâ€™t say enough about Admiral Mullenâ€™s leadership,â€ the sailor said. â€œIt was the leadership of a nonpartisan military that allowed this to happen.â€
Some 14,500-service members were discharged between 1993 and 2011 under Donâ€™t Ask Donâ€™t Tell, according to the Service members Legal Defense Network. Some of them are back serving in uniform, the Navy officer said, but the Defense Department does not track the numbers.
The Navy officer acknowledged that â€œsome incidents have happenedâ€ in the military ranks, related to gays serving openly. However, she added, they are not enough to roll back the momentum, or the law, in support of gay service members. â€œItâ€™s too big. … Itâ€™s not going to turn this back,â€ she said.
With the legal change, gay service members say they have never been more proud of the U.S. armed forces.
â€œIâ€™ve never been more proud of this organization,â€ the Army officer said. â€œIâ€™ve never been more fully embraced by our military and by our country.â€
The sailor, who is planning to retire in the next few years, said she has some decisions to make about her post-military life, noting that different regions of the country have different levels of acceptance towards gay people. She said she worries that where she chooses to live could place her back in a closet. Nevertheless, this time, she said, she will not go.
â€œI donâ€™t know what Iâ€™ll do in retirement,â€ she said. â€œBut I wonâ€™t be hiding.â€