tip off

Now they ask, and they’re happy to tell: stories from the frontline

Pentagon officials signed the death certificate for the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ban on known gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers today with a rowdy cheer more akin to civilian political rallies than a military ceremony.

There was a Navy wedding, a few Diana Ross anthems, and celebratory toasts in the countdown to midnight, even though the policy had effectively been halted for several months from ongoing court challenges. Many took to YouTube and social media to say what they couldn’t say before. The parties continue tonight honouring the anonymous active duty and out veterans that fought for the right to serve and those who died before they could be honest with their units.

A survey released yesterday by OutServe, which has about 5000 current servicemembers as members, found 78% were already out to someone in their unit in violation of the law. Less than half are planning on telling further colleagues now the ban is over. Several told me they weren’t ready to be a force for change in their units. Others like, Private Jeremy Derleth, a 21-year-old fresh recruit from Texas set on becoming an Army Ranger, just wanted to do his job and include his partner like every other grunt. To do that he couldn’t be looking over his back all the time to see if anyone noticed his boyfriend’s car in his driveway.

The policy itself prevented the Pentagon’s multi-million dollar repeal task force from acknowledging the estimated 65,000 gay troops to seek input, but OutServe found a way. Starting with a small network of trusted soldiers, they slowly introduced new members who had been verified by existing members under Mafia-like secrecy. Now, the day of repeal, some came out publicly in a project called 101 Faces of Courage.

Coming out is still considered an attention-seeking political act in many parts of America, especially for the conservative military community. The Pentagon’s new instructions lightly discourage it as “a personal and private matter”, in contrast to religion, which is mandatory public record. OutServe’s founder “JD Smith” took aim at that thinking today saying leaders needed to be brave so the next generation will have it better. He outed himself as 25-year-old First Lieutenant Josh Seefried, an Air Force finance officer based in New Jersey.

I first met Seefried before he created the “JD” persona or OutServe and went with him on his first lobbying effort on Capitol Hill against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It wasn’t much of a scoop, because even in the confidential meeting rooms of his senator’s office, Seefried couldn’t risk explaining how the policy was hurting him. At least not as Josh. Two years later, “JD” is releasing a book about the struggle called Our Time: Breaking the Silence of DADT.

From the very beginning this law has been abused, misinterpreted as an excuse to punish gay families and malign them as unpatriotic and harmful to society. What began as “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass” was reduced to just “don’t get caught” necessitating a hollow lonely existence or living in constant fear of losing everything. Hang around Washington for a short time and you’ll run into dozens of separated soldiers where the compromise failed to live up the fairness then Joint Chiefs Chairman General Colin Powell had promised.

Air Force Major Mike Almy had his private emails searched after an anonymous tip-off that he was gay. Army Captain Jonathan Hopkins was also confronted by his superiors after being outed by a third party. Throughout the campaign to repeal the ban, supporters like Senator John McCain insisted that situations like what happened to Almy and Hopkins have never happened: “That’s not the policy,” he insisted over and over again when challenged by reporters.

The former law’s supporters still want to see gay people marginalised under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) prohibition on “sodomy”. The Supreme Court struck down sodomy bans more than five years ago, but the hateful words remain in the book for every soldier to read. Supposedly they’re unwilling to update them in case a soldier tries to claim “forceful sodomy” doesn’t fall under rape laws.

A broad interpretation of policy has long been used as blanket ban on any equitable treatment for gay families. Same-sex military spouses, like myself, cannot buy groceries or even a stamp at our base exchange. Even now, low ranking enlistees with same-sex spouses and children must live away from their families in base dormitories, while their heteros-xual colleagues can live off-base as a whole family. Their partners can now be listed as a recipient of a few minor benefits but not most, including health coverage, survivor benefits, next of kin notification or inclusion in housing allocations. The Defence of Marriage Act demands most of those inequities, and political will prevents more basic steps like equal opportunity status. Straight troops, the Pentagon report last year found, were opposed to gays getting “special rights”.

It will be difficult for troops kicked out under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to reenlist or regain commission, but many are already trying. They’ll have lost seniority, pay, retirement benefits and many are still being asked to pay the costs of their own separation.

Australian ADF officers were part of global advisory panels created by the Pentagon, but ultimately it rejected their advice to move swiftly and boldly to create a environment best suited to good order and discipline. Instead there will be another review in a year to see how it’s all playing out.

Politically the repeal is a Big Deal. The only notable achievement of this White House that still has overwhelming public support, and the only big ticket legislative achievement for a minority constituency in since the offending law was created as a compromise almost 18 years ago much to Bill Clinton’s regret. And it was a real bastard sausage-making effort to repeal through the Congress. But at last a horrible stain on America’s arc of history has been removed.

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  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 21 September 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Kick-ass article, Harley. This is probably the best DADT coverage I’ve seen all day, and I’ve been litterally swamped in US media.

    I’d really like to also hear what exactly the LGBTIQ service and rights organisations are going to do about the Transgender ban in the US, plus why the LGBTIQ media didn’t include transpeople in their coverage, though I think that it will take a bigger brick than this young transwoman can throw to get an answer to any of that.

  • 2
    Harley Dennett
    Posted Wednesday, 21 September 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I just noticed Crikey took out the F in BFD (last graf). If someone no less esteemed than Vice President Joe Biden can use it, why can’t a punky independent media outlet like Crikey? …just kidding, you guys are OK.

    Kate, I’m genuinely surprised the transgender ban didn’t get more coverage when the Adrian Lamo logs revealed Bradley Manning was seeking separation under those provisions. Certainly everyone is a bit sensitive about whether it is a transgender ban, as intent or just in practice. Just like the claims that DADT wasn’t really a gay ban because you could still serve if nobody knew. However that queer community media didn’t find any space is a bit disappointing.

    I do know that the Pentagon has worked with a senior ADF officer with expertise in handling trans cases. Unfortunately I can’t say any more than that.

  • 3
    Sally Goldner
    Posted Thursday, 22 September 2011 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Kate - throw the biggest brick you can. This middle-aged transwoman will do likewise (smile),

  • 4
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Thursday, 22 September 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Just like the claims that DADT wasn’t really a gay ban because you could still serve if nobody knew”

    Which of course ignored the whole issue of partner/family rights, which made it still discriminatory.

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