It was a huge non-event, the two US military officers who were speaking with us said of the demise of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in September 2011.
That there would be no more resistance was already obvious at a training course the navy officer attended in the lead-up to the policy change. With usual military thoroughness, the various branches of the US armed forces had organised training sessions so that their officers and enlisted servicemen knew what would be expected of them post-DADT.
As the navy officer (who has to remain anonymous, as a condition of the background briefing held in the Pentagon) recalled, one person in the session she attended said something that was more stupid than homophobic. Nevertheless, “everybody turned on him,” she said.
“Ten years ago, would everybody in the room have cheered him on?” she mused.
She had also overheard other personnel talking casually about gays and lesbians on a separate occasion. These were younger officers, and their attitude to differences in sexual orientation was completely accepting. To them, it was the most normal thing in the world to have gay people around.
And yet, the repeal of DADT – the necessary Congressional legislation was passed in December 2010, and implemented nine months later – once seemed a very difficult thing to do. Political opposition was considered too strong to overcome. Some senior officers had spoken up against repeal arguing that it would damage morale in the armed forces. Yet, going by the first-hand experiences of the army and navy officers briefing us, when it finally happened, it was no big deal to everyone. This seems to show that sometimes the issue of acceptance can appear more difficult than it really is if one listens only to the minority with a political agenda. The people who are actually going to be affected would only be shrugging.
In fact, despite the greatest opposition having come from some senior officers of the Marines, the navy officer said it is entirely possible that the Marines will now do the utmost to ensure full equality and acceptance. “It’s just the way the Marines work,” she noted, half in jest. They have a inimitable thoroughness about them. Now that they’ve got the orders, they will set about observing them more strictly than any other branch.
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The officers spoke about how difficult it had been to work under the DADT policy. The army officer recalled having to tell white lies and be perpetually guarded. Should his gay orientation be discovered, he faced discharge.
Discharge meant not just the loss of a job they both loved, but loss of pension as well.
Even casual conversation presented difficulty to gay people. “When colleagues asked: ‘What did you do during your two weeks of leave?’ what does one say? ‘Oh, I caught up with some friends?’ ”
Such an evasive answer would do nothing for bonding with one’s peers. But bonding was important. Having served three combat tours in his 20 years in the artillery, he knew this: The emotional intensity soldiers face while in action is such that honesty and trust among servicemen in the same unit is crucial. Yet, gay soldiers have to keep secrets.
He summed it up thus: “In keeping personal secrets from your closest buddies, in trying to guard every word, for example, not slipping up on a pronoun (he/she), and lying through omission, it eats at your soul.”
That barrier to honesty also damaged family ties. The navy officer, for example, loved the military (and to date, had served 24 years), but also did not want to put her family and loved ones through the dilemma of having to lie for her in case the military did background checks. So the less they knew about her true self, the less jeopardy they would be exposed to.
Given that security clearance was necessary for promotion and even continued employment, background checks can never be ruled out.
In her case, not only did it mean being parsimonious about telling her family about herself, it also meant she effectively wrote off having a relationship.
“Being thrown out of the military at the 5-year or 6-year mark wasn’t part of my [career] plan,” she said, underlining her love and pride in the organisation.
Even so, she could never be sure when the guillotine might fall. She recalled how she would get work-related calls from her office during weekends, but “everytime I got a call at home, I would be nervous.” She never got used to them. “I’d have this fear that the caller would tell me to go to my commander’s office Monday morning, stand at attention before his desk, be read my rights, and be told that I am fired.”
Such was the toll that DADT took on gay servicemen’s lives.
The army officer however, had been in a relationship for several years already despite DADT, but the difference is that now he is free to get formally married.
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Going off on a different tangent, I asked him if there was any time when one or more of the men under him misbehaved in a way that suggested homophobic impulses, and how he handled such a situation given that the military, through DADT, tacitly endorsed homophobia.
Indeed, he recalled one such incident. Some men in his unit were hazing another soldier because the latter was small-built and was presumed to be gay (he wasn’t). “Although at a personal level, the incident went to the core of me as a gay man”, he said, it wasn’t difficult to deal with. The Uniform Code of Military Justice forbids this kind of behaviour that lowers the dignity and respect accorded to a fellow soldier.
So while the hazing might have been motivated by homophobic impulses, the violation was of dignity and respect, and he as commander was able to deal with it along those lines, meting out fair punishment.
Moreover, “my non-commissioned officers brought the offenders to me” – a positive sign in the way the NCOs too did not think such hazing was acceptable.
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There were subtle shifts in attitude even while DADT was in effect. More and more, servicemen began to know who might be gay among them in their units, but they also understood that the violations targetted by DADT was that of asking and telling. Knowing that a colleague was gay was not in itself a problem. And so people (including the heterosexual ones) learnt not to ask nor tell.
“Over the last ten years, that was the evolution taking place within the military,” said the navy officer. “People knew, but didn’t ask.”
And when repeal finally came, that so-and-so was gay had become so un-newsworthy, there was nothing worth asking or telling. Thus, the great non-event.
Yet, there were surprises post-repeal. “In the last couple of months,” the navy officer said,”I have met gay and lesbian servicemen who have done absolutely remarkable things [in the years before].” Not only have they been in committed relationships, they’ve raised children.
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What did these two officers think of the future? What if Republican candidate Mitt Romney wins the presidential election this November?
The military is constantly transforming, the navy officer said. There was racial integration several decades ago, then women were admitted gender transformation) and now this. In her opinion, the acceptance level is so high, there is no going back.
She’s still waiting for an incident to surface which conservatives may use to campaign for reversal. However, she was confident that whatever the incident, “be it small or egregious, it’s not going to change the direction.”