The truth is hiding where no one is looking. The United States Armed Forces are undoubtedly the best equipped, most highly trained and uniquely well selected military in the world. But the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy” (DADT), chosen as a compromise in 1993 under the Clinton Administration, has left many of our service members in doubt.
Gay men and women, of all races, religions and backgrounds, have been forced to lie and remain silent on matters of the heart — while pledging allegiance to our country and the higher ideals of democracy and freedom. The question of what is right is clear, but the answers around what is appropriate remain complicated.
I recently interviewed three African-Americans who are currently enrolled in the U.S. Army. I realized that the only way to get to the heart of the questions was to ask the people it most affected. Their stories are our stories, but hardly ever written and seldom told. The report published two days ago by the Pentagon compared the current policy against gays to the segregation of blacks and whites during the Jim Crow era, and concluded that despite ardent opposition to integration in the 1940s by white officers against black officers — it was still the right thing to do. Some readers may find the comparison of discrimination against African-Americans and gays analogous, while others will believe it to be an unfair similarity. On whichever side of the argument you find yourself, it is best to defer to those men and women who must live that truth and tolerate that lie.
For purposes of privacy and anonymity, I am unable to reveal the names of the three individuals. The DADT policy dictates that these are faces are without names, and lovers without labels. They are capable of taking bullets, but not allowed to tell anyone who and how they love. Their answers were surprising. I had began thinking they would automatically be in support of the repeal of DADT, but found that all three felt it both protected their interests and discriminated against them.
WATCH RACHEL MADDOW’S COVERAGE OF ‘DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL:
The catch-22, as one Retired Staff Sergeant, known only as K.S. coined it, is “DADT does not allow bullying and so it protects as much as it discriminates.” She went on to say that until the U.S. military can put anti-harassment and anti-bullying laws in place then Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is the best solution. K.S., a 32 year old Iraqi veteran who was wounded by chemical weapons used during her time in Tikrit and Mosul, explained why DADT is like segregation: “It’s a learned behavior, but it can be unlearned as well.” I asked how she managed to live within this duality. “My personal life has nothing to do with work. I didn’t feel like a second-class citizen, because I’m a low-key individual. I like my privacy. But for others, it may be more difficult.”
When asked if DADT should be abolished, K.S. was divided on the matter. “There is a lot of bullying in the Army. That’s the nature of the organization. What DADT does is place a muzzle on a topic which causes disagreement and protects people from harassment.” I went further by asking about her personal relationships. “Ideally I would love to bring my wife to the Family Readiness Group (designed to integrate military families), and I’d be a happier person if I could. But I am hesitant because of fear of harassment and losing my job.”
K.S. described the economic inequalities which she agreed were tantamount to racial discrimination. Heterosexual couples are rewarded by the U.S. military with higher incomes, better housing benefits and food subsidies. None of this exists for gays who have partners. “What if I had spent my life loving and caring for one person? If I die in Iraq, she would not be able to receive anything I had spent our lives building.” I asked why K.S. had joined the military to begin with, “It was a family tradition. Many members of my family were in the military and I respect that. I wanted to be a part of that tradition.” I realized after speaking with her that I had only seen DADT as a political issue, a matter of civil rights and protocol. But what lied beneath was life and death, love and loss, and family in all its myriad revelations.
The next interview was with a couple who are still currently serving. Anonymity is of upmost importance to them, and they were only willing to be interviewed under an agreement of strict privacy and they are referred to here, simply as “Stud” and “Fem”. The couple are 26 and 21 years old respectively. Fem revealed herself as a Specialist, the rank between Private and Sergeant. Stud was more senior and refused to discuss her position, but told me that she had been deployed to Iraq for 18 months. I asked, “Do you draw a clear comparison between the segregation/desegregation of black and white service members in the 1940’s and the current DADT policy? “I think it’s different” Fem explained. “I have never felt uncomfortable, because everyone respects the DADT policy. You are never asked. No one ever discusses it.” Stud went further, “The Army is work” she said, “There is a time for being who you are and a time for being professional.”
I was intrigued by their resolve and wondered if this was a condition of military training and the indoctrination necessary to produce effective soldiers. Stud and Fem both explained that they were not without a sense of freedom. They have what they call “Battle Buddies”: friends and colleagues who have served alongside them in the field. Stud told me that she can talk about her wife, and problems she may be experiencing at home. Their battle buddies are true friends who neither judge them nor report them for being gay. They are fellow officers who live by a higher code. “My buddies are straight females, straight males and other gays. White, black and Asian. The military is as diverse as the (general) population.”
I pushed further, wanting to know what it was like on the outside and the inside. Stud and Fem told me their truths. “What is wrong with DADT is that we feel like we are being stalked.” Stud said “I can’t even walk down the street and hold hands.” Fem explained, “There are times when I want to put a photo on Facebook, but I can’t because we’re not able to be open on social networking sites. Things other people take for granted could cause me to lose my job and livelihood.”
I was humbled by my interviews. I ended them all with gratitude and saluting the officers for their service. I realized that life in the military was about sacrifice. Sacrifice comes at an unmitigated cost. What I understood from these young people was their ability to qualify the sacrifice and offer both body and soul for a higher ideal. I was left wondering, of what is the American Dream made? Can we ask 18 year olds to die in the desert and deny them the right to love out loud? It is a strange duality that freedom and silence must walk hand in hand.
Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, testified before the Senate explaining that we should no longer require our men and women in uniform to lie about who they are. He said it’s a matter of integrity. I agree. But what I have now learned is that there are two sides to this debate, and the opposite of the truth is an equally undeniable truth.