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Transcending a Readiness Frame for LGBTQ Rights in the Military

Marking a decade since the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell."

Words: Anne I. Harrington
Pictures: Courtney Coles

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.”


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.”

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Brigadier General Brenda Cartier, as a Lt Col prior to the repeal of DADT.
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Brenda Cartier with her AC-130-U gunship crew. Afghanistan, 2002.
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Rainbow Ribbon from Tammy Smith.
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Rainbow Ribbon post cards from Tammy Smith.
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Brenda Cartier with a AC-130-U gunship. Afghanistan, 2002.
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Tracey Hepner and Tammy Smith on their wedding day in 2012. The flag that Tammy Smith raised at Bagram Air Base on Sept. 20, 2011.


The repeal of DADT heralded a sea change in the relationship of the military to questions of sex and gender.  Opportunities for servicemembers to align their personal ability to thrive with their military service have expanded rapidly. Thinking about diversity and inclusion in military circles has evolved significantly in the last decade. In 2015, the Department of Defense updated its Equal Opportunity program to include sexual orientation as a protected characteristic. In 2016, the military lifted its prohibition on women in ground combat. As of January 2021 military accessions are officially open to transgender military members, and those already serving can transition — a right that was given under the Obama administration in 2016 only to be rescinded via tweet by President Trump a year later, leaving the transgender population in limbo. The Department of the Air Force has established a working group for LGBTQ+ Airmen and Guardians. Anticipating that the Biden administration would reverse President Trump’s discriminatory treatment of transgender servicemembers, a strategic decision was made to wait. In January 2021 the Secretary of the Department of the Air Force signed the official charter for the LGBTQ+ Initiatives Team (LIT), one of six barrier analysis working groups (BAWG) that exist to provide recommendations on how to identify and address the issues impacting diversity and inclusion for Airmen and Guardians, and a first of its kind organization for the LGBTQ+ community within the DoD.

Overwhelmingly, LGB military members and families report encountering a permissive and welcoming environment since the repeal of DADT. Few report overt experiences of discrimination. Yet, this does not mean that the Services are free from homophobic sentiment. Conversations within the LGBTQ+ Initiatives Team  reveal just how dependent the LGBTQ+ military community is on the continued existence of a permissive political environment to access basic services. As a protected group under DoD Equal Opportunity policy, military members can bring discrimination complaints on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the decision to interpret policy inclusively is more often than not left to the local level. Accessing resources including everything from fertility assistance to transgender medical care relies upon the willingness of providers to apply policies in ways that grant access to LGBTQ+ servicemembers.

Take, for example, a lesbian couple wishing to access fertility treatments. Securing access depends upon individual providers — from primary care physicians to nurses to fertility specialists — agreeing to interpret the heteronormative language of the medical referral process inclusively. Fertility treatments are not covered by military health insurance, but the military has six medical facilities that provide fertility services on a cost-sharing basis to active duty military members and their spouses. In order to receive a referral for these services, a primary care physician must fill out the necessary paperwork as if the non-carrying female spouse were an infertile male. Once you know this, it is possible to access fertility treatments as long as the doctors and nurses interpret the referral process permissively. However, based on my personal experience, the referral policy could also be interpreted as excluding lesbian couples. There is no fertility support available that meets needs specific to gay males. Support for surrogacy, for instance, is not provided.

Even Pride Month celebrations are left to the discretion of individual installation commanders. Unlike Black History Month or Women’s History Month, the observance of which is authorized by public law or executive order, celebrating Pride is dependent on a permissive political environment. Pentagon Pride events are sponsored by a non-profit organization, called DoD Pride. It is administered by long-time civilian DOD employee and member of the Friday LGBTQ+ coffee club Rudy Coots, who also serves informally as a local Pentagon resource on LGBTQ+ issues for the military community. They are only allowed to have an event at the Pentagon leadership’s discretion.

There has been a DoD Pride at the Pentagon event every year since 2012, but after the election of President Donald Trump, the Equal Opportunity Office’s support for DoD Pride, including designing and publishing an annual Pride poster, stopped. Though DOD Pride celebrations continued, administration officials did not participate. The observance of Pride month was further complicated in July 2020 when the Trump administration put out new guidance on flags on military installations, resulting in a de facto prohibition on Pride flags. Coots expected that under the Biden administration support from the Pentagon’s Equal Opportunity Office would return. This year, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austen spoke at the DoD Pride event. Still, afterwards the Equal Opportunity Office declined to publish the poster on their website.

There are a couple easily identifiable things that can be done to move beyond the limitations of a readiness frame and fully embrace an opportunity frame. The first is to create a DOD-level BAWG, an LGBTQ+ corollary to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) which provides the Secretary of Defense with advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to women in the US Armed Forces. The second is to sponsor legislation or request that the President sign an executive order recognizing the observance of Pride month on a federal level, placing it on equal footing with similar occasions.

This past June Brigadier General Cartier was the keynote speaker at Keesler Air Force Base’s Pride Event in Biloxi, Mississippi. After a security team swept the room for bombs in response to online threats, General Cartier took the podium. Speaking to a room of young Airmen, she recalled what people used to say about gays in the military: “Not in my Air Force.” She remembered how as a young lieutenant she used to believe them. She used to believe that it was their Air Force. But after multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a fire control officer on an AC-130 Gunship, including the initial special operations invasion of Iraq and commanding an Air Force Special Operations Group down range, she started to wonder, “Whose Air Force is it?” Today she says with confidence that she lives in her Air Force. “And you know what, it’s not just my Air Force,” she said to the audience of young LGBTQ+ Airmen and allies. “It’s your Air Force.”

Anne I. Harrington

Dr. Anne I. Harrington is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Cardiff University and a same-sex military spouse.

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