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 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.
As gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans and their supporters celebrate June as “Pride Month,” 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 told 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.
“It was the secrets, the trying to guard every word so that you don’t use the wrong pronoun,” the soldier said, recalling his fear of referring to his partner as “he.”
“That eats at your soul,” he added, “and you feel pretty hollow when you have to live that kind of lie.”
While senior military leaders say the change has 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 repeal’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 other – their families, influences, and world views. “It wreaks havoc on your ability to deal with stress,” he said.
Back home, even calls he’d receive from his leaders on weekends were stressful, the soldier said. “Every time my phone rang and I saw the caller ID,” he recalled, “I thought, ‘I’m about to be fired. Every single time I got called at home, regardless of the reason for the call, for a split second, I thought, ‘This will be the call where I get fired.’ It was always in the back of my head.”
When the law’s repeal took effect Sept. 20 “with a collective yawn” from the straight military community, he said, “there was this feeling of relief [among gay troops] that not only do I now finally feel like a full-fledged citizen of this country – the country that I put my life on the line to defend more than once – but now I can do my job more efficiently.”
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 here. The couple hopes to adopt a child – a prospect that was impossible before, the soldier said, because “the idea of teaching a child to lie in order to protect his fathers was an ethical nonstarter.”
The sailor has continued to stay quiet about her personal life, but says the repeal has given her the freedom and confidence not to lie about who she is.
“If you ask, I will tell you,” she said. “That’s the decision I made on Sept. 20. While I’m not going to stand up and announce it, I also won’t turn a blind eye to those younger members who are putting their lives on the line.”
The sailor had to do just that as a lieutenant, she said, when a young enlisted sailor came to her and wanted to confide in her about her own sexuality. “I cut her off and said, ‘You cannot say that next sentence that I think you’re going to say, because I’m an officer.'” Under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the officer would have been required to report it up the chain of command.
It was about the same time that the officer experienced a bitter breakup in a relationship that caused her to put her personal life mostly on hold and reinforced her 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 outing the young lieutenant who had hoped to make a career of the military, as so many in her family had.
“I got threatened with being outed,” she said. “Being thrown out of the military at the five- or six-year mark wasn’t in my plans. … It caused me to shut down my life, and I said, ‘I’ll just do the military thing,’ because I just couldn’t take the pressure from being threatened.”
After Congress passed the repeal in December 2010, the services had to conduct training and do other things to prepare before Defense Department leaders could certify to the president that repeal would not harm readiness. The sailor attended an all-Navy training session.
“I caught myself three or four times,” she said, “because I was convinced I was going to cry.” She was “fundamentally overwhelmed,” she said, by the conversation in the room that let her know homosexuality, by and large, had become a nonissue to today’s service members.
“I was just so proud that it really had come to the point where this was no big deal,” she said.
Others were beginning to see the “disconnect” that she and other gays and lesbians had lamented for years.
“Many other militaries beat us to the punch on this,” she noted. When the United States built a 50-nation coalition in Afghanistan, “we didn’t go to NATO and say, ‘Only deploy your straight people.'” And yet those troops served together – ate, slept, showered, fought and bled together – without regard to sexual orientation, she said.
“If you are genuinely operating as a professional military, sexual orientation shouldn’t be part of the discussion,” 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.
“If you served in this military in the 1970s, you would not recognize it now,” the sailor said. “People who say we shouldn’t serve openly are out of date, out of touch with today’s military. The young service members genuinely don’t care.”
Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was debated fervently for more than a year, but took effect officially with little fanfare.
“A 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, ‘Wow. It really did happen,'” the sailor said. “There were plenty of us who, honestly, never thought this day would come.”
Now that it has, she added, “I’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.”
Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen is widely credited with being a powerful force behind the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As 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 irreparably harm readiness.
“No 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,” Mullen said then. “For me, personally, it comes down to integrity – theirs as individuals, and ours as an institution.”
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 that the services were ready to move forward without Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“I can’t say enough about Admiral Mullen’s leadership,” the sailor said. “It was the leadership of a nonpartisan military that allowed this to happen.”
Some 14,500 service members were discharged between 1993 and 2011 under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, according to the Servicemembers 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 “some incidents have happened” in the military ranks related to gays serving openly. But, she added, they are not enough to roll back the momentum, or the law, in support of gay service members. “It’s too big. … It’s not going to turn this back,” she said.
With the legal change, gay service members say they have never been more proud of the U.S. armed forces.
“I’ve never been more proud of this organization,” the Army officer said. “I’ve never been more fully embraced by our military and by our country.”
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 toward gay people. She said she worries that where she chooses to live out the rest of her life could, effectively, try to put her back in a closet. But this time, she said, she won’t go.
“I don’t know what I’ll do in retirement,” she said. “But I won’t be hiding.”