Six years ago today, former President Barack Obama ended the ban on openly gay military service — known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or DADT. Since then, gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members have been able to serve their country openly, honestly, and for the first time since the U.S. military’s existence, without punishment.
However, the years leading up to the DADT repeal proved to be trying, causing many gay men and lesbian women to challenge the military as a form of white supremacy and homophobia. Rob Smith, author of Confessions of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Soldier: How a Black Gay Man Survived the Infantry, Coming Out, and the War in Iraq, is one of those people.
In 1993, then President Bill Clinton announced the U.S. military’s policy on gay and lesbian service members. The discriminatory policy, DADT, allowed closeted members to serve, while prohibiting those in the military who were openly gay to serve. Prior to this policy, there was an outright ban on gays in the military.
Supporters of the ban emphatically believed that gay men and lesbian women threatened unit cohesion or military readiness. They also made these assertions even though some of our foreign allies repealed their gay bans without any impact to unit cohesion or military readiness. And now, six years later, it is apparent that gay and lesbian troops were never a threat to military readiness.
What’s more, when enacted, many argued that sexuality should be kept outside of the military discussions altogether.
But it’s important to not diminish DADT’s impact as a policy that solely prevented gay and lesbian service men and women from partaking in ordinary conversations about their relationships; the people who matter to them most. It prohibited LGB people who wanted to serve from discussing life, love, and themselves in ways like their heterosexual counterparts. It prohibited them from showing pictures. It forced them into silence, pretending that the life (and people around them) before joining the military never existed.
This changed in 2011 when President Obama signed away this exclusionary policy. “I hope those … who’ve been discharged under this discriminatory policy will seek to re-enlist once the repeal is implemented,” Obama said as he signed the bill into law. This didn’t just happen overnight. In fact, in Nov. 2010 Smith along with 12 other military veterans were arrested for White House demonstration against the DADT.
In Confessions of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Soldier, Smith reveals his personal experiences as a gay military man serving under DADT and reminds us that for many LGBT people, the battle for equality in the eyes of the military is not over. When a tweet from President Donald Trump in July 2017 put the hard-fought equality of transgender soldiers at risk, Smith spoke up on CNN. Now, he lifts the veil on his working-class Ohio upbringing, the brutal infantry basic training process, coming of age as a Black gay man in the overwhelmingly white LGBT community of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and his military service during the initial invasion of Iraq.
In terms of being gay and serving under DADT, Smith felt a profound sense of isolation because he couldn’t be who he was fully. “Being forcibly closeted at the risk of losing livelihood and life based on who you are made me internalize negative ideas about being gay,” Smith told theGrio. “That’s fundamentally what it is – discrimination, gay bashing, and federal discrimination of LGBTQ people. What it does is sends a message that who you are isn’t good enough and should be ashamed of – and that, to me, is the most damaging part about this.”
Smith’s story isn’t unique.
In Epidemic of Gay Loneliness, the author explores sexuality and aging, and notes that being gay can drive isolation and depression, which can create damaging physical, mental, and emotional consequences outside of the military and doubly within. Smith acknowledges this and says it is particularly true for Black and queer service members and veterans. “I was gay [in the military] and I struggled with that for a while even coming out of the military. Talking to other veterans and leaving that behind, that was a difficult transition despite serving and being discharged honorably – service was worth no less than anyone else’s,” Smith says.
“Living at the intersection of being Black and gay, you have to have images that affirm you and learn to affirm yourself that you are worthy and valid of everything else that everyone is entitled to.”
The intersections of people’s lived experience must always be remembered but especially under the Trump administration. In July, he tweeted:
After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.
In June 2016, the Pentagon ended the ban of transgender people being able to serve openly in the U.S. military. Under President Obama, this was part of the increasing progress of the inclusion of gays, lesbians, and bisexual service members. Certainly, everything was not perfect and much was to be desired about military service – because the focus was more on inclusion and visibility than safety – but it was a conversation worth having.
DADT is critical to remember so it doesn’t get relegated into history. Because it may not be history for long. According to Smith, “when you have something like what President Trump tweeted about transgender people serving, you realize these ways of people discriminating against us still exist and is still happening. So, we can’t throw things away into history.”
Smith openly discusses critiques of the military and how it is harder to serve being Black and a member of the LGBTQ community, but wants to remain visible, especially in calling out racist and homophobic structures. “I am comfortable in my skin and proud of all of my identities – and it being different to mainstream society doesn’t mean anything is wrong with it,” Smith says.
On the anniversary of the DADT repeal, it’s important to not only remember visibility but safety – particularly under a Trump administration.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Slate, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.