‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal means new challenges
Reporting from Las Vegas -- The New Hampshire Army National Guard is holding a yellow ribbon seminar this week for soldiers returning from the Middle East to help them and their families adjust to life back home, but Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan’s partner of 11 years isn’t welcome.
Morgan, a lesbian who returned from a deployment in Kuwait in August, said her partner is barred from the family support services, healthcare coverage and housing provided to non-gay spouses of service members. She can’t even shop at the base commissary.
That did not change with the historic repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Sept. 20. Such lingering inequities helped motivate Morgan and more than 150 other gay and lesbian active service members to descend on Las Vegas last weekend for the first national summit on military life in the post-"don’t ask, don’t tell"-era.
“I was so elated, so happy, when the repeal happened, but we still have a long ways to go,” said Morgan, 47, a personnel officer who has served in the military for 16 years.
The summit was hosted by Outserve, an association of gay and lesbian service members that until recently was an underground support organization born from a secret Facebook group. Started just over a year ago, Outserve has 48 chapters worldwide, has a membership of 4,500 and publishes a bimonthly magazine distributed on bases in the U.S. and abroad.
During the three-day event, officers debated the benefits and pitfalls of coming out to those under their command; the rank and file peppered mental health experts about the unique, unacknowledged stress that gay men and lesbians face on the front lines; and civil rights advocates offered a bleak outlook on ending the significant legal and political barriers that remain for married same-sex couples.
Merely having the conference, held in the convention hall at the bustling New York New York Casino and covered extensively by the national media, was a milestone. Navy captains attended alongside cadets from the Air Force Academy and soldiers just back from Iraq and Afghanistan, openly discussing their lives as gay men and lesbians in the military — conversations that only a year ago would have led to being discharged.
Outserve co-director Lt. Josh Seefried said the organization’s mission now is to erase remnants of discrimination and inequality and to accelerate the military’s acceptance of those dedicated to serving, no matter their sexual orientation.
“The problem in the military right now is that there is visible inequality being introduced,” Seefried said. “Under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ that inequality was invisible. You just had to kick someone out and you could ignore the problem.”
Straight and gay service members work side by side in Iraq, Afghanistan and all other military installations across the globe. Yet only straight service members receive a boost in pay if they’re married, and only they can request shared deployments if married to another service member.
“That’s a problem for unit cohesion in general,” said Seefried, a finance officer based in New Jersey. “When you treat people differently, that’s when the mission goes awry.”
In the first few weeks since the repeal, Outserve’s leadership said the response within the military had been overwhelmingly positive. Many at the conference spoke of taking their partners to military dinners for the first time, being greeted warmly by their commanders and colleagues when revealing their sexuality, and the simple pleasure of displaying framed pictures of partners.
Still, others who spoke at the conference, including veterans discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” urged officers and enlisted personnel to make their presence known.
“Now’s the time for role models and leaders … to show that we wear the same uniform, we bleed the same color — red — we salute the same flag and we’re really no different from our counterparts,” said Michael Almy, an Air Force major discharged after another service member, without permission, searched his private email and reported him to the commander.
Michelle Benecke, co-founder of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, also took a not-so-subtle jab at Republican presidential candidates — who will arrive in Las Vegas for a debate Tuesday — vowing to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“If you can come out in the military, you can come out anywhere. The right wing’s worst fear are the people in this room,” Benecke, a former Army artillery officer, told conference members.
Under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as long as gay men and lesbians kept their sexual orientation secret, they were allowed to serve. More than 14,000 service members were discharged during the 18 years the policy was enforced. Congress voted to rescind the policy last December; the change took effect last month.
Along with cultural challenges, significant legal issues remain for gay men and lesbians in the armed services. The federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the Pentagon from providing benefits to same-sex couples, further cemented by a separate federal law that defines a spouse as a “husband” or “wife” in a heterosexual marriage.
The absence of any official support for partners only compounds the stress gay and lesbian service members face when in combat or deployed away from home. Family and relationship problems on the home front are a greater cause of post-traumatic stress disorder — a catalyst for increased alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and other personal ills — than exposure to combat, said Capt. Scott Johnston, head of the Naval Center Combat and Operational Stress Control unit in San Diego.
“We’re asking these people to put their lives on the line, and we not going provide their partners with support? That doesn’t make sense,” said Johnston, one of many presenters at the conference.
Johnston is optimistic that the military will find a way to address the inequity, just as it did when African Americans and women were integrated into the ranks. In the meantime, he said, the partners of gay men and lesbians in the military must rely on private or community resources for counseling and other mental health needs.
Along with a brisk change in military culture, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has created an uneasy new reality for service members who had formed tight, secretive social bonds with other gay men and lesbians in the service.
They had turned to one another at times of heartache, such as the death of a partner, as well as for acceptance and intimacy. Fraternization among officers and enlisted personnel — a violation of the military code of conduct — was common, and rarely reported.
“A lot of the things that we did in order to survive, in order to find meaningful relationships, we compromised,” said John Fiorentine, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard based in Washington. “There was no greater sin in our community than a gay betraying the trust of the family. Just over a month ago, that dynamic changed. We have to rethink the whole scenario now of how we’ll handle that.”
Allowing gay men and lesbians to openly serve is also bringing about personal change. Steve, a captain based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, is still in the closet but since the repeal has been telling his friends and fellow officers one by one. Next up, his parents.
“They’ll be coming out for a visit in a few weeks,” said Steve, who asked that his last name be withheld. “It’s time.”