Finally asking, openly telling: The end of DADT

OPINION - The taste of victory belongs to the soldiers, who for too long were asked to die, but denied the right to live and love out loud...

Yesterday marked the end of the 18-year-old military policy commonly known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT). At one minute past midnight early this morning, the U.S. Army issued its official statement informing all personnel, “From this day forward, gay and lesbian soldiers may serve in our Army with the dignity and respect they deserve.” In accordance with the repeal of the law, the military began accepting applications from openly gay recruits.

Gay rights activists and their Democratic allies are pleased. President Obama’s White House delivered on his campaign promise to repeal DADT, and that undoubtedly will prove politically expedient as he courts progressives and liberals in next year’s election. But the taste of victory belongs to the soldiers, who for too long were asked to die, but denied the right to live and love out loud.

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I marked the occasion by revisiting an interview I did last December, where I discussed this issue with African-American servicemen and women who are still enrolled or have retired from the U.S. military. My first conversations with them were enlightening, as I realized how deeply personal the decision to both serve and be openly gay would forever change their lives.

I first interviewed a young lesbian couple for whom anonymity was of utmost importance, and as such I was limited to referring to them simply as “stud” and “fem”. Both are now deployed in Iraq, and I was unable to get their thoughts on today’s historic change. I remember at the time they were each reticent about repeal, explaining that because there is still so much prejudice and a conservative fervor in the U.S. military, DADT discriminated against them, while protecting them at the same time.

I decided to speak to my dear friend, Ty Hill, a decorated officer and veteran of the United States Army. Ty lived under the strict rules of DADT in the late 1990’s at a time when social attitudes toward homosexuality were still evolving. He has since retired, found a promising career as an attorney, settled down with his life partner, and developed a mature perspective on the time he served, what it meant to be silent, and what the end of DADT will mean for the next generation. As an African-American man, from a religious background I found his journey to peace, in an atmosphere of war, compelling and worthy of a platform.

theGrio: Ty, what was it like living under the DADT rules? Did you know you were gay then? Were you in constant fear of being “found out”?

Ty Hill: I was an untested gay private the day I joined the United States Army. I was a decorated gay officer the day I left. I was an excellent gay soldier all the days in between. I employed a level of personal stealth that fighter pilots would envy, and as such was able to evade the army’s anti-gay policies and sensibilities for years without ever causing more than the tiniest of blips on the institution’s “gay-dar” screen.

In the 12-year span from my initial enlistment to my final separation, my commanders never knew, or even suspected, that I was gay. I was what many of my gay friends refer now to as a “day walker” — a moniker taken from the Blade vampire movie franchise in which a day walker was a vampire who could pass as human because, with some effort, he could temporarily hide his mortal susceptibility to sunlight.

I was called a day walker because, with some effort, I could hide my career ending attraction to men. Day walking is something I had learned growing up in small town Texas, the son and grandson of southern preachers.

And did that duality come easily for you?

Yes and no. My day walking act on the army’s anti-gay stage was practically flawless, but mostly because I was a physically imposing, broad shouldered, muscle bound African American solider whose uniforms fit impeccably and whose military bearing and professionalism were unmatched. I lived, worked, and played with straight counterparts speaking their language, laughing at their jokes, and mimicking their all too often homophobic mannerisms so convincingly that they thought of me as one of their own.

Soldiers of all ages respected me, admired my maturity and frequently sought me out for trusted advice and counsel and the occasional end of the month loan. Women made no secret of the fact they found me attractive.

I had woven myself so seamlessly into the ostensibly straight fabric of the army that I had mastered the skills needed to navigate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Even so, like the day walkers in the movie, my immunity to the ‘light’ was temporary and the policy proved to be the primary reason my military career ended long before I ever wanted it to. To this day, I often look back on that time and I mourn what might have been had I been able to serve the country and the army that I love.

So what do you think of the repeal? What does the future hold for young men and women who are gay and wish to serve?

Well, thanks to President Obama and his making good on the promise to repeal DADT, no longer will young men and women have to choose deceit and subterfuge over dedication and selfless service. Fortunately, times have changed. Thoughts on homosexuality and the military have evolved considerably. And the closeting that many kids like me found necessary in their youth is no longer a requisite for survival in military. With final repeal of DADT, those service members who wish to can now “legally” be who they were born to be without fear of being expelled.

This is a monumental leap forward for the United States Armed Forces. In ways I can’t fully explain, the DADT repeal is a balm to the emotional and psychological scars that I have carried now for more than 25 years. And while some old, backwards thinking, intolerant, members of society would like to see service members like me relegated again to oblivion, I am happy that our time has come. And I’m proud to be an American and even more proud to be a veteran.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.