On the morning of Sept. 20, 2011, Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier exited the Metro and joined the steady flow of uniformed military officers and civilians in suits passing through security at the Pentagon. It was a day like any other, but on this day, as she scanned her military ID and navigated the turnstile, a wave of relief washed over her.
On the other side, life at the center of the United States Department of Defense went on with comforting regularity. Despite predictions of catastrophe from those who opposed the right of Lt. Col. Cartier and others like her to serve openly as lesbian, gay or bisexual military members, what unfolded that day was a historic non-event. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) — the law that prohibited lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) military personnel from revealing their sexual orientation — was implemented without resistance or fanfare. As Biden Administration nominee, Army veteran, and LGBTQ+ advocate Sue Fulton put it: “In the months leading up to the repeal the Services had braced for impact. What they encountered wasn’t even a speed bump.”
Meanwhile, upstairs in his Pentagon office, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson prepared for a noon press conference with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. The Secretary and Chairman were scheduled to officially announce the end to DADT. Mr. Wilson, the first openly-gay individual to be Senate-confirmed to a senior-level Pentagon position, was a regular at the Friday afternoon coffee group in the Pentagon food court where for years a small group of LGB military members met informally — hidden in plain sight — providing one another with support and companionship.
At noon, the Pentagon Briefing Room was packed. Along the back wall, in uniform, stood a dozen or so members of the Friday coffee club. There were no official DoD plans for celebration, but Mr. Wilson had pre-positioned a couple cases of Dogfishhead Ale for the occasion. After the press conference he invited the members of the Friday coffee club across the hall to his office for a toast. Word soon got out. Staff wandered in, along with members of the Implementation Team, General Counsel, and representatives from LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations. “That was the party,” Mr Wilson recalled. “It was more than a collective exhale. It was an exaltation. It was a celebration of normalcy…this very dramatic thing turned out to be a nothing burger.”
READINESS VERSUS JUSTICE
Ten years on the implementation of the repeal is remembered as a success precisely because it was a non-event. That was part of the strategy. Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, an independent research institute instrumental in the passage of the repeal, recognized early on that framing of the repeal as a civil rights issue played into the hands of opponents. Faced with a choice between publicly prioritizing the repeal as a means of maintaining current readiness levels or embracing diversity in the name of justice, military leadership chose readiness. Issues of justice, it turned out, were only convincing to those who already cared.
Instead, LGB advocates flipped the script on opponents of the repeal. They co-opted the military’s readiness frame, arguing that LGB troops were already serving with distinction. Discharging them on the basis of sexual orientation, as they had done with Army Spec. Alastair Gamble, one of seven Arabic language specialists fired for being gay, only wasted talent. With this new script in hand, requiring LGB servicemembers to live a lie went from being viewed as protecting military readiness, to undermining it. “No matter how I look at the issue,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen famously testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in early 2010, “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”
Driving the repeal forward with a readiness frame was a huge success. The day the repeal was implemented there was an enormous lifting of weight off the shoulders of LGB military personnel. However, downplaying the justice frame also came with costs. Perhaps the greatest cost was that it left transgender servicemembers behind. Widely held misconceptions about transgender medical treatment and its impact on their readiness made the issue easy to sideline. There were also other less visible costs.
Framing the repeal as an issue of readiness rather than justice provided DoD leadership with a ready made justification for withholding resources that could have been used to support LGB servicemembers through a difficult transition. Sensitive to the perception that LGB military personnel would be afforded “special treatment,” the committee tasked with studying the possible impacts of the repeal recommended against granting LGB servicemembers access to Equal Opportunity programs. “[W]e do not [sic] recommend,” they wrote “that the Department of Defense place sexual orientation alongside race, color, religion, sex, and national origin as a class eligible for various diversity programs, tracking initiatives, and the Military Equal Opportunity program complaint resolution processes.” The report emphasized the need to treat all military personnel with respect, but prioritized appeasing the homophobic sentiments of a minority who resented the fact that gays would be allowed to serve openly in “their” military over providing appropriate protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Faced with a choice between publicly prioritizing the repeal as a means of maintaining current readiness levels or embracing diversity in the name of justice, military leadership chose readiness. Issues of justice, it turned out, were only convincing to those who already cared.
Part of their rationale for not including sexual orientation among the list of traits eligible for Equal Opportunity programs was the fact that LGB servicemembers themselves were “not seeking special treatment, just asking the Department of Defense to ‘take [the] knife out of my back,’ as one gay servicemember put it.” Yet, DADT’s injunction not to “tell” had created an insidious form of isolation that made it difficult for the LGBT community to articulate what they wanted beyond a basic right to exist. The nature of DADT meant that this particular group was uniquely unable to speak as a “we.” They weren’t allowed to come out to one another, which denied them the most basic ability to build a sense of community. They had also never experienced what it was like to be out in the military, so they did not know what to expect. Barriers to integration, almost by definition, could only be discovered as members of the LGB community encountered them but there was no mechanism in place to capture that information.
This left it up to each individual LGB servicemember to figure out on their own how to overcome decades of institutionalized oppression. “Coming out,” Mr. Wilson noted, “was less of a policy question than a personal choice.”
Coming out is a personal choice, but that choice is heavily colored by the social and political environment. Under DADT the military environment had been openly hostile to LGB servicemembers. DADT was sold as a compromise by its supporters, but the rancor of the national debate raised the profile of the issue and the LGB military community suffered as a result. What counted as “telling” under DADT was treated expansively. Although superior officers could not “ask” about homosexuality, accusations of telling could be based on a seemingly limitless list of activities: seeming too friendly with someone of the same sex; having in one’s private possession gay literature; hand holding; embracing; and even refusing sexual advances from the opposite sex. Numbers of discharges under the policy increased steadily year-by-year through the 1990’s, peaking at 1,301 in 2001 before dropping dramatically as the military turned its attention to the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the 18 years of DADT, approximately 14,500 servicemembers would be discharged for being gay. Many more, when faced with the possibility of a discharge under the policy, took another less stigmatized discharge code if offered the option.
One of the great conundrums of the repeal effort was that talking to LGB military personnel about their experiences was key to successfully implementing the repeal, but LGB military members were prohibited from advocating on their own behalf by the injunction not to “tell.” We know who we are as people, in part, by looking at each other and seeing ourselves in one another’s experience. Under DADT LGB military families were uniquely denied that ability. Founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition, Tracey Hepner explained, “Under DADT we couldn’t be out to the military community, but we couldn’t be out to the gay community either.”
Even so, in the run up to the repeal there were entrepreneurial military members who found ways to organize and connect. On the day of the implementation of the repeal, OutServe, a first of its kind organization for the LGB military community, organized its members to come out en masse in a special issue of their magazine. Administered by Air Force Captain Josh Seefried under the pseudonym JD Smith, OutServe connected LGB military members through an underground networking site which allowed them to organize behind a shield of identity security. “We had a very clear strategy,” recalled Ms. Fulton, who under DADT provided a public face for the organization. “On the day of the repeal we wanted to publish 100 faces of people who were out on that day. The idea was that on day one we wanted to do not one person, but show that gay people are everywhere.”
Now Lt. Col., then Captain, Eddy Sweeney, one of the founders of “OutServe Magazine,” described receiving an overwhelming response to the issue published on the day of the repeal. “I was stationed in Germany. It was Oktoberfest and celebrations were underway. I was in the train station when I downloaded the Washington Post on my phone and saw my name on the front page. They hadn’t even talked to me. They had seen the magazine.” What only a day prior would have been his worst nightmare — being outed on the front page of a national daily — is one of his favorite memories. Soon after the phone calls started rolling in for guest appearances on morning shows and cable news outlets.
However, for others the scars of DADT would take longer to heal. It would take then Lt. Col., now Brigadier General, Cartier two more years after the DADT repeal was implemented to begin the process of coming out at work. Despite having a supportive family, including a mother who was in a same sex marriage herself, Brigadier General Cartier was reluctant. Coming out to colleagues at work required relearning a new way to be in the world — new “muscle memory” — but accessing the support required to learn those skills almost by definition required doing or saying things that would have resulted in discharge under DADT. Looking back, she describes her hesitancy: “It’s like when they release a caged tiger into the wild. Just because they’ve opened the cage door doesn’t mean the tiger is going to rush through it,” she said. “As much as I hated being in that cage, it felt familiar. Once I passed through the door into the wild, anything could happen. There would be no turning back.”