What had changed — and what hadn’t — in the three years since the U. S. Defense Department repealed the policy that prevented gay and lesbian service members from serving openly? Based on months of research and dozens of interviews, I explored that question in the fall of 2014.
On a recent summer morning in Northern Virginia, about 100 very fit 20-somethings in camouflaged uniforms marched onto a large asphalt parade field in Quantico, Virginia – elated after ten weeks of tough physical and mental screening to have been selected as officers in the U. S. Marine Corps.
Among their ranks: Joseph Rocha, who many would have imagined the last person who would want to be part of that formation.
In 2005, Rocha was an 18-year-old sailor, stationed in Bahrain with a Navy unit using dogs for explosives detection.
He is gay, but — as was required by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy — tried hard to hide the fact. Because it was apparent, though, that he was not pursuing relationships with women, he was among a number of sailors singled out for degrading hazing by the chief petty officer who led the dog-handling team.
“I was ordered to get on my knees,” he said, and “pretend to have oral sex with another service member. I was instructed as to how to be more queen-y, more queer, more homosexual, more believable.”
After all that, the Navy offered Rocha a chance to attend the U. S. Naval Academy, but he chose to leave the service.
“I felt like I had a lot more to lose as a closeted officer than I would if I just stepped out at that time…at that point I was very proud of my career,” said Rocha.
“Under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I didn’t have a future. It wasn’t a matter of if I would be found out, it was a matter of when. And how much that would hurt myself, and my partner, and my family.”
Three years ago – on September 20, 2011 – the U. S. military did away with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – and began allowing gay and lesbian military people to serve openly.
And Joseph Rocha — who had finished college, and started law school — came back.
“I earned an education and hoped that I could come back in without skipping much of a beat,” he said, “which was a huge blessing; it ultimately turned out just like that.”
When now-Marine Corps Second Lieutenant Rocha completes his law degree and passes a bar examination, plans are for him to serve as a military attorney.
“It’s that difficult path that gives all of this so much value,” said Rocha. “I want to dedicate myself to the integrity of the Marine Corps, and to protecting the sons and daughters of America, through being a JAG officer. And there’s nothing more powerful than empathy — having gone through it yourself — you know, sympathy can only go so far.”
In the three years since repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – quite a lot has changed – much of it substantive, some symbolic.
At the 2014 Capital Pride Parade in June, a Defense Department-authorized Joint Service Color Guard marched for the first time ever in the event celebrating LGBT people in the Washington, D. C. area.
“Obvious signs that things are changing for the better,” said one parade-watcher. Event organizer Bernie Delea agreed: “It’s a wonderful sign from the Defense Department and the administration that this celebration of diversity and inclusivity has now got an official representative from the U. S. military.”
The story of the military’s acceptance of openly-serving gays and lesbians, though, is still one of transition – as I found during recent weeks speaking with dozens of gay and straight service members — from each of the military branches, at bases across the country.
“It’s basically been three years of silence, which is a good thing,” summed Aaron Belkin, a San Francisco State University professor and executive director of The Palm Center, which has studied gay and lesbian integration in the armed forces.
The upside of the silence: there have been no widespread problems with integration since 2011. Another aspect, though: it was not easy to find military people willing to share their thoughts on how well things are going — even when offering to not identify individuals by name or rank. In this report, those service members not identified by name said they felt they could not otherwise speak as candidly.
“Within my unit,” one soldier offered, “there’s actually an openly gay man. He’s very open about it, and we do accept him for who he is.”
“The career field that I’m in, we don’t typically interact with openly homosexual individuals,” noted a sailor serving in the Navy’s expeditionary forces. “The process itself I don’t think would be a big deal, as long as people maintain professional abilities.”
From another soldier: “An infantryman isn’t going to come out and say, like, ‘I’m gay.’ It’s just not accepted. It’s allowed. But it’s one of those things that you just don’t come out and say.”
The highest-ranking openly gay person in the U. S. armed forces serves at Fort Belvoir, Virginia: Brigadier General Tammy Smith, deputy chief of staff of the Army Reserve — who was promoted to her present rank 11 months after the repeal.
“I’ve gone from being secret,” she recalled, “to being completely authentic.”
“For me personally, I had to overcome that 25 years of having my institution suggest that there was something wrong with me. So, I had to reevaluate where I was as a person — and to move from almost an internalized homophobia, after that 25 years — to just that place, working with my wonderful spouse Tracy, that it really is okay to be exactly who I am.”
And she said changes in the summer of 2013 — when the Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the Defense Department began recognizing same-sex marriages – allowed her to be even more openly who she is, going, as she put it, “from being someone who had to keep my partner an absolute secret, to someone who is now a married military member and lives in Army housing.”
“I believe that it makes me a better soldier. It makes me a better leader. It makes me interact with individuals in a much more candid way. And I think that that is good for the military.”
In the lead-up to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal three years ago, a significant number of former military leaders suggested the policy shift would degrade military preparedness.
“About a thousand retired generals and admirals had signed a statement before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal,” recalled Aaron Belkin, “claiming that if the military repealed the policy, then the All-Volunteer force would fall apart.”
Belkin said Palm Center studies had indicated a much different outcome.
“When women were allowed into the military on an equal basis, or a somewhat equal basis, with men,” he said, “and when people of color were allowed into the military, there were a lot of hiccups along the way to full integration. And the research was very clear that that would not be the case with gays and lesbians. And so it really is not a surprise that repeal was a non-event.”
“There was no decrease,” said Belkin, “in either retention or recruitment after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Moreover, Belkin says Palm Center researchers “contacted about 500” of the generals and admirals who had gone on record opposing the shift “and asked them if they had any evidence that their prediction had come true, and they hadn’t.”
It is a finding borne out by some of the top leaders of America’s military forces.
“If there is any single thing we that have learned since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work remarked emphatically during a Defense Department Pride Month event in June, “it is that all the predictions, by some, that our force would be weakened – could not have been further from the truth.”
Another indication that the environment in the military has changed: Belkin says some men and women who had been discharged under the old rules – after having been outed as being gay – are applying to return to the ranks. The group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has estimated that more than 13,000 military people were discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell provisions between early 1994 — when the Clinton Administration implemented the policy — and the 2011 repeal.
“They wouldn’t have any special privilege to get back into the military,” Belkin noted. “They’d have to compete with the rest of that pool. But at the same time they wouldn’t be penalized.”
Those returning gay and lesbian service members will find circumstances significantly different. But they may also face administrative difficulties some say create an “almost equal” service experience.
One: problems with some Status of Forces Agreements between the U. S. and governments of countries where the military maintains bases abroad. Certain of those agreements do not allow military commands to “sponsor” a same-sex spouse.
“What that command sponsorship does is allow that family member to go over on basically a visa that lasts the entire length of time as the military member’s assignment,” explained retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Chris Rowzee, a volunteer with the American Military Partner Association, a resource and support network for LGBT military partners, spouses, their families. “Otherwise, they have to go over on just a normal visitor’s visa that’s only good for 90 days.”
Rowzee says State Department representatives tell her group they are working to rewrite those Status of Forces Agreements. As they do, some same-sex military spouses have to remain in the U. S. while their service member works overseas – or fly back and forth every three months, applying each time for a new visa.
“It’s certainly a financial hardship in the travel,” said Rowzee. “It’s a financial hardship in trying to maintain two households. And it’s a hardship on that family, just period… We have a lot of families that are struggling through that right now.”
The diplomatic dilemma is not necessarily caused because of another country’s social norms. Germany, for instance, offers its own citizens a form of gay marriage, but Rowzee said does not allow equal treatment of same-sex spouses of U. S. service members.
“So right now, people who are assigned to Germany are not receiving command sponsorship for their LGBT spouses to accompany them. That breaks up families.”
Same-sex married couples in the military can also sometimes face unique difficulties while assigned within the U. S.
“The military’s the one that has the say in where we go, and where we get stationed,” Rowzee reminded. “And right now we have families that live in states that do not recognize their legal marriages. And so as long as the military member is sitting on base, their marriage is recognized. But the moment they step off base — into North Carolina, or Georgia, or Alabama, or whatever state it may be that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage — they’re no longer recognized as a married couple.”
This can be a particular problem when one member of the same-sex couple has adopted a child of his or her spouse.
“Under federal law they are a step-parent,” said Rowzee. “In the eyes of the military, they are a step-parent — but as soon as they step off base, in the eyes of that state, they have no legal connection to that child at all. And if something happens to the biological parent, that other parent — that step-parent — has no legal rights to that child. The state could come in and take that child away, and there would be nothing that that military member could do about it.”
Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also revealed rifts between top military leaders and some religious denominations that provide men and women to serve as armed forces chaplains.
“The primary casualty, if I may use that military term, has been the marriage enrichment programs,” said retired Army Colonel Ron Crews. He is executive director of the group Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty — which supports chaplains’ following the teachings of the religious groups that endorsed them for the chaplaincy.
“Most of those from evangelical perspectives told their chaplains that they would not be able to do marriage enrichment retreats, workshops, pre-marriage counseling, marriage counseling to same-sex couples — because that was a violation of a basic faith tenet.”
Crews says a practical outcome has been that if a same-sex couple signs up for his or her unit’s couples counseling retreat – and the chaplain scheduled to coordinate the activity does not counsel same-sex couples – the events are sometimes called off entirely.
“Current guidance,” noted Chris Rowzee, “is that chaplains — if their sponsoring faith does not allow them to minister — they are supposed to find a chaplain who can.” But she said “that’s been hit or miss, according to our members. We have members who have tried, and who have been unsuccessful in getting ministerial services.”
Crews says it is a matter of spiritual belief – and numbers.
“The overwhelming majority of chaplains come from those faith traditions,” he said, “who still hold marriage is the union of one man and one woman. And that means the pool of chaplains who are able to provide those resources to same-sex couples is very small. On some installations, even large installations, there may be one chaplain — out of a hundred chaplains assigned to an installation — who comes from a faith background who could do marriage retreats for same-sex couples.”
Crews and Rowzee both make the point that such counseling is important to helping military families deal with problems that can grow from frequent deployments and combat stress.
The push and pull between endorsing denominations and a sense of military duty has been difficult for some chaplains. One told me of a senior colleague pushed into retirement by his endorsing religious group – after he had simply attended — not officiating — a chapel ceremony blessing the marriage of two same-sex service members.
And Crews says chaplains who follow their faith when it differs from the military’s now-changed views on same-sex relationships worry their military performance evaluations will suffer.
As an example, he describes a situation he said was faced by a chaplain recently preaching at a service in Afghanistan: “One of the epistles dealt with ‘end times’ — and one of the results of end times is an increase in homosexuality; it’s mentioned in scripture, and that just happened to be in that text that he was preaching from. One of the people listening to that got upset and went to their equal opportunity officer, who went to the commander. The commander brought the chaplain in and said, ‘Listen, this is not good for our unit.’”
Crews says it can create difficulties for chaplains from faith groups that view homosexual behavior as a sin.
“It’s ultimately the commander’s religious program. It’s not the chaplain’s, it’s the commander’s. And the chaplain is there to fulfill that piece of the command responsibility. And when he says, ‘I can’t do it,’ then how does that commander look at the chaplain? Is he no longer a team player? Is he seen as one more problem that the commander is going to have to deal with?”
Though he tells the chaplains he endorses that he hopes they are never forced to pick one over the other, Crews said he reminds them that their faith trumps the Department of Defense.
“We serve God. And G-o-d is bigger than D-o-D.”
Three years after repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, gay military people no longer face being kicked out of the service for being open about who they are. The military gets the value of their commitment, intellect and hard work.
And some researchers suggest straight service members are better off, too. They point to a problem evidenced during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era of women being sexually assaulted, then not reporting the crimes because their attackers threatened to tell commanders that the women were lesbians – which could have led to their being kicked out of the military.
Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center has his sights now set on encouraging the military to allow transgender service members to serve openly.
“There’s a separate policy that bans transgender military service,” he noted, “and that policy was left on the books.”
Defense leaders justify keeping the prohibition in place by saying it would be too expensive and complex for the military medical system to provide care to transgender service members.
Belkin said there are holes in that argument.
“A few months ago, a panel of retired generals and admirals, that included a retired U. S. surgeon general…actually went through, one by one, the Pentagon’s medical rationales for firing transgender personnel, and they found that those medical arguments didn’t make sense, that there was bad science behind each argument.”
As gay and lesbian service members enter a fourth year of open service opportunity, some find themselves serving as educators.
General Smith sees it as helping people around her get used to the change.
“Like how do they refer to Tracy? Is she my partner? Is she my wife? What I have learned through the past three years is that sometimes it’s helpful if I help them. They want to be welcoming. And one of the things about being out that I think has been good is that because I can be exactly who I am, and be recognized with my spouse — is that just the example of us breaks down stereotypes that people had previously held.”
And that seem — based on my recent conversations with service members — to persist.
“To speak bluntly,” observed the expeditionary force sailor, “there’s a lot of aggressive people in certain fields, and typically homosexuals are not the people that fit in to that mentality. And an aggressive person can make it very uncomfortable for people to really let their guard down, and show what they’re all about.”
Added a soldier: “If they’re male, they’re not going to be talking about their boyfriend. It’s still kind of hush-hush, even though we can’t discriminate for being gay.”
And another: “I don’t know if it’s ever going to change, but they’re the kind of guys who are quick to judge. So it’s going to be a little bit harder for openly gay people to join infantry just because of that.”