It is hard to believe that this month marks the ten-year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). When I first heard that DADT had been repealed, I was sitting in my sophomore English class listening to a lecture on Shakespeare. Over the next few months, I heard many politicians and activists talk about how important this achievement was for queer people. As a closeted gay youth at the time, I felt that the decision was a great victory for the LGBTQ+ community in the US and that we were one step closer to acceptance. However, this feeling did not last. Instead it has been replaced by a pessimistic belief that nothing has really changed.
Since the repeal of DADT, the lives of queer servicemembers have improved, but major challenges remain that threaten to undermine these gains and stall further progress. The four main issues that the US military needs to focus on that disproportionally impact LGBTQ+ current and former servicemembers are sexual assault, the HIV ban, dishonorable discharges received prior to the repeal of DADT, and the anti-sodomy law. Addressing these four problems could help mitigate threats to queer servicemembers that affect their ability to perform tasks effectively, live healthy lives, and pursue a long-term military career. Furthermore, by taking these steps the US military can improve its image and establish trust with the LGBTQ+ community, which has often been ostracized by military culture. The important question is: Is the US military and Congress willing to take these steps?
When it comes to sexual assault, the LGBTQ+ community reports 43% of all sexual assaults, but only make up 12% of the service population. Recent studies show that gay and bisexual servicemen are nine times more likely to experience sexual assault than straight servicemen. Additionally, lesbian and bisexual servicewomen are almost twice as likely to experience sexual assault as straight servicewomen. Another study also found that out of the 221 transgender servicemembers surveyed, 84% of them reported at least one incident of sexual harassment and over 30% reported being sexually assaulted.
If the US military wants to show that it has moved beyond its bigoted ways, then it must do more than wave rainbow flags.
The topic of sexual assault is often framed as an issue that only impacts women, a false and dangerous narrative that the US military needs to confront. The reality is that sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. In 2016, a study found that 66% of servicemen who were sexually assaulted characterized their experience as bullying or hazing, compared to 33% of servicewomen who were sexually assaulted. This means servicemen are far more likely to view these incidents as normal interactions and deny that they have been sexually assaulted. Considering that queer servicemen make up 48% of all male sexual assault cases, they face a high risk of victim denial. To combat this problem, the US military needs to reform their sexual assault preventions trainings to include a broader understanding of what actions constitute sexual assault and harassment, and who these behaviors affect. This would help destigmatize sexual assault, empower victims to speak up sooner, and encourage men to be a part of the discussion and help find a solution.
In order to address sexual assault against LGBTQ+ servicemembers, US military leaders and policymakers need to understand that queer servicemembers have a deep mistrust of their military leadership in handling these issues. Simply changing policies is not going to reverse decades of harm and immediately build bridges. The US military cannot expect LGBTQ+ servicemembers to report incidences of sexual assault to an institution that historically has been hostile toward them. For example, in January 2021, US Army specialist, Kaylie Harris publicly came out as lesbian. Within ten days she was raped, and a few months later she committed suicide. Kaylie’s alleged attacker was initially a close friend, but when Kaylie came out he became openly aggressive toward her. She reported the incident and received a protective order, which did not deter her alleged attacker. Kaylie’s story is one of many examples of how the US military has failed to protect queer servicemembers.
The US military services should contract a third-party organization — which the military does for various other services — to handle reporting of sexual assault against LGBTQ+ servicemembers and to consistently follow up with military investigators regarding queer sexual assault cases. This could allow queer servicemembers to feel more comfortable about coming forward. It would also force US military investigators to be held accountable and maintain consistency throughout the entire process. Additionally, the US military currently lacks sufficient data to explain why LGBTQ+ servicemembers represent a significant portion of sexual assault reports. To help address this short sight, future anonymous surveys should include questions that identify the location of the incident that took place and the believed motivations of the perpetrator. This would help identify other factors that might be causing queer servicemembers to be disproportionally impacted, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
In 1985, the Department of Defense (DOD) began mandatory testing of all recruits for HIV and prohibiting anyone who tests positive from serving in the US military. At the time this policy made sense because no treatment was available and people who acquired HIV would often develop AIDS and die as a result of complications from the disease. Medical treatment, however, has come a long way and now individuals with HIV are able to live long, healthy lives. Additionally, from 2012 to 2018, 93.8% of HIV-positive active duty military personnel were placed on antiretroviral treatment (ART) and 99% of these individuals were able to achieve viral suppression within a year of starting their medications. These servicemembers were not discharged because they were infected after they joined the services.
The HIV ban strictly targets individuals who are already HIV-positive prior to the application process. The fact that the US military still operates under this outdated policy, which has mostly affected queer recruits, provides another example of how little progress has been made on LGBTQ+ issues. One person directly impacted by this policy is Kevin Neese, who found out a month before he was supposed to graduate from the Navy Academy that he was HIV-positive and was unable to commission as an officer. All of the resources that had gone into training him were now a waste. Like many individuals affected by this policy Kevin tried to fight for his right to serve, but was ultimately honorably discharged in 2017.
The US military should allow individuals who are HIV-positive to enlist in noncombatant roles immediately. Being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence and these individuals can live healthy lives due to the advancement of treatment available. By removing this ban, the US military can help destigmatize the disease and develop more effective policies that are backed by modern research. Further, all US service branches should allow HIV-positive servicemembers to commission as officers. Denying service members who are HIV-positive roles that they are qualified for does not improve military readiness. In fact, it prevents qualified people who are willing to serve from advancing their military careers.
Before the repeal of DADT, servicemembers suspected of being queer were subject to investigation. If any evidence was found, that servicemember would receive a dishonorable discharge. This practice denied many queer servicemembers access to VA benefits. It is estimated that over 100,000 servicemembers between 1945 and 2011 were dishonorably discharged from the US military for being homosexual. LGBTQ+ veterans can apply to upgrade their status, but this often takes up to a year to complete this process, if not longer. In 2018, a study found that only 8% of the veterans in this group had updated their status since the repeal of DADT. Inadequate procedures at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that force queer veterans to provide proof that their dishonorable discharge was a result of their sexual orientation are responsible for this delay.
Carl Tebell was forced to leave the Navy over 70 years ago because he was gay. His dishonorable discharge would have life long negative impacts, which not only prevented Carl from accessing VA benefits, but kept him from obtaining certain job opportunities. Many queer servicemembers like Carl suffered for decades as a result of this distasteful policy, and have been denied their humanity for far too long.
The VA should create a task force that is designed specifically to help LBGTQ+ veterans who received dishonorable discharges to upgrade their status. This would help separate individuals who are seeking to upgrade their status and could reduce department backlog. The VA further needs to develop a marketing campaign to reach out to queer veterans to make sure that they know their status can be updated. Too much pressure is put on queer veterans to reach out to the VA. Instead, it should be the VA’s responsibility to reach out to them.
For over a hundred years, the US military has maintained that sodomy is a punishable offense. Despite the repeal of DADT ten years ago, this outdated and homophobic law remains on the books. Members of Congress made attempts to get rid of the law back in 2011, but criticism from religious groups inhibited attempts to change the law. The fact that UCMJ article 125 is still in place is an insult to all queer servicemembers who have put their lives on the line for the defense of this nation.
If the DOD wants to show that it has really changed it must take action to correct this discriminatory policy. Furthermore, allowing the law to stay could enable future policymakers to roll back LGBTQ+ advances that have been made over the last ten years with regards to military service. DOD should repeal the outdated language in UCMJ article 125 now.
WHAT THE US MILITARY NEEDS TO DO
While the repeal of DADT marked significant progress for LGBTQ+ servicemembers, more work remains to ensure that the US armed forces can access the talent LGBTQ+ individuals can bring to military service. Next steps are needed for the US military to continue moving in the right direction. Addressing queer sexual assault, the HIV service ban, dishonorable discharges, and UCMJ article 125 will ensure that the sacrifices queer servicemembers and veterans have made are seen as equally valuable.
There may no longer be locks on the closet door, but many queer servicemembers are still confined and unable to step out. If the US military wants to show that it has moved beyond its bigoted ways, then it must do more than wave rainbow flags. Until these changes occur, there is no reason for queer people to join the US armed forces, and LGBTQ+ individuals who are considering military service should think about the toxic environment and treatment they may be subjecting themselves too before they decide to join.
Cody Kennedy is a research intern in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for New American Security.