Four gay and lesbian veterans and a University of Utah attorney discussed the military’s controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy during the university’s Pride Week events.
Sponsored by the school’s LGBT Resource Center and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, the hour long panel commemorated the 15th anniversary of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s creation under the Clinton administration and examined its impact on gay and straight members of the military. The five panelists included Dan Choi, an infantryman facing a dishonorable discharge after coming out as gay on The Rachael Maddow Show in March, Sarah Hjalmarson, a retired army medic and U student, Jeff Key, a writer and former Marine, Valerie Larabee, the Utah Pride Center’s Executive Director and an U.S. Air Force veteran, and Cliff Rosky, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.
Kevin “Ken” Verdoia, a producer at the school’s PBS affiliated KUED, moderated the discussion and opened with a brief summation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s history in the broader context of U.S. military history — in which George Washington dishonorably discharged the first soldier from his brigade for homosexual conduct. The current policy — which allows gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve so long as they do not discuss their orientation, engage in gay sex or enter into a marriage with someone of the same sex — was “actually concluded … [as] progressive at the time” of its signing, said Verdoia. It was also supposed to be “a five year band-aid” until a better policy could be written.
“I remind you we are now 15 years later,” he said.
Choi, one of only eight seniors in his class in the United States Military Academy at West Point, began his presentation by explaining his reasons for coming out so publicly earlier this year. He said that his first relationship with another man and the school’s honor code, which states t hat “a cadet will not lie or tolerate those who lie” lead him to speak out on Maddow’s show.
“It doesn’t say straight cadets can lie, but gay cadets? It’s OK to lie,” said Choi, who also served as the week’s keynote speaker.
Choi said that his boyfriend Matthew made him “a better soldier and officer because I knew someone would love me and support me.” He noted that he brought this up during his discharge hearing as well as the slogan for the military’s current anti-suicide campaign: “No Soldier Stands Alone.” He said he told the presiding officers that the campaign was hypocritical, because it forced gay, lesbian and bisexual personnel to lie and often kept them from seeking the support after returning from combat zones with diagnoses of clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“When are we going to tell our gay and lesbian soldiers that they don’t have to live and serve alone?” he asked. “
In his presentation, Jeff Key told the crowd of roughly 30 students, faculty, public and press a little about his service in Iraq during 2003. Eventually he said he came out and left the military because he thought the strategy in Iraq was “ineffective.”
Noting that he often feels like an outsider in both veteran anti-war groups because he is gay, and gay veteran groups because he is a peace activist, Key said he “knew what it feels like to stand lonely on conviction.”
Upon joining the military, Key said that he thought Don’t Ask, Don’t tell was “a good idea” because his life so far “had been steeped in secrecy and shame.” But during active duty, he said he realized the argument that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is necessary to enforce unit cohesion was wrong. When his fellow Marines feared they would die the next day, Key said they told him “things they’d never tell their wives.” Lying in return, he said, felt dishonorable.
When he contemplated leaving the Marines, Key said he called up some of these same officers — who knew he was gay — to ask them if they thought he was using “the gay card” only to get out of harm’s way in Iraq.
“If you do this, you’re going to be so much less safe than you are in Baghdad,” he said they told him.
Hjalmarson and Larabee, in contrast, served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, abided by the policy, and received honorable discharges. However, both said doing so came at a tremendous cost.
Hjalmarson said she spent four years “in a very quiet long distance relationship,” but her unit still figured out that she is lesbian.
“Everybody knew. They know. Or they assume — correctly in many cases,” she said. Regardless, she said that the units in which she served accepted her.
“Everybody loves the medic,” she joked.
Still, to avoid getting into trouble, Hjalmarson said she had to become “very proficient in the pronoun game” and left the service ultimately because she “couldn’t keep lying.”
Wanting to serve because her father had, Larabee said she lied on a document that asked her if she was a homosexual, and spent the next eight years lying.
“I was an actress when keeping the various parts of my life separate,” she said, noting that she was “almost three Vals” at one point.
The policy, she added, effects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who aren’t in the military as well, because lies hurt civilization.
“Lying in any capacity … [has] costs to physical and mental health, and is a barrier to forming true, genuine and lasting relationships,” she said. “It is far gentler and kinder to our world to let people speak the truth.”
In recent years, several military offici8als, including Gen. Colin Powell, have spoken out against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In April, a Quinnipiac poll also found that 56 percent of U.S. Americans favored lifting the ban. Additionally, Rosky mentioned that an article by Air Force colonel Om Prakash appearing in Joint Force Quarterly, a professional military and security publication, argued in favor of lifting the ban and against the idea that it hurts unit cohesion. Perhaps tellingly, the article won the 2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay competition.
Rosky also pointed out that the policy actually created a worse climate than the absolute ban it was intended to soften. Eighty-three percent of discharges under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he said, were because of statements and not behavior. If a servicemember is found out to have a “propensity” for homosexuality, Rosky said that person either must prove she or he is straight or that she or he is homophobic.
“Everyone has to prove they’re heterosexual constantly and one of the ways to do that is by being homophobic,” he said. “So it creates the homophobia it was made to submit to.”
Regardless, Rosky noted that support for ending the policy among the public and military, and President Obama’s promise to strike down the policy gave people “every reason to believe this policy is not long for this world.”