LGBT Military: Hurdles remain for LGBT soldiers

There’s no shortage of things to consider when embarking on a military career. But for Army Reserves Sgt. Robin Biro, just one was top-of-mind when he joined in 2009: How he would manage to serve his country without his identity as a gay man becoming a hurdle.

He decided to butch it up when necessary and kept his personal life, well, personal. In other words: If they ask, try not to tell.

“I just said that I’ve been too busy to date,” said Biro, who left active duty a little over two years ago. “That usually shut them down.”

Half a decade later, Biro proudly shares his history as an out Army ranger. The stigma, for the most part, has vanished.

“Enough time has passed,” he said. “It’s just normalized.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the repeal of the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, or DADT, which restricted out lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women from serving in the U.S. military. As we honor our fallen service members gay and straight this May, signs abound of a vastly improved environment for gays in the military.

Yet real hurdles remain, especially for transgender enlistees, who struggle with cultural acceptance as well as practical issues like wearing gender-specific uniforms. Meanwhile, The Georgia Voice could find precious few enlisted service men and women willing to go on the record with their orientation – evidence that while gone, the military’s longstanding stigma against homosexuality is far from forgotten.

Signed into law that December, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 brought an end to the policy that had kept countless LGB military personnel closeted for nearly two decades and led to some 14,000 discharges.

Five years on, there are signs of a stunning about-face across various military branches. The Associated Press recently reported on Eugene “E.J.” Coleman earning a vice presidential nod for being the first out class president at the United States Military Academy; last fall, gay singer/songwriter Steve Grand escorted a gay marine to the annual Marine Corps ball. And in May, Eric K. Fanning became the first openly gay Secretary of the Army.

This new acceptance would have been hard for Biro to imagine when he signed on. Fresh off a run as a regional field director with the Obama campaign, Biro was looking for a way to continue serving the President when he signed an Army Ranger contract in 2009. Friends were concerned: Biro was over 30 years old, clearly gay and entering a regiment known for machismo and a frat-like atmosphere. Biro himself had heard rumors that supported their concerns.

“Basically, the Army as a whole didn’t really have a problem with openly gay troops, but the only part of the Army that did was Ranger Regiment,” he said, recalling Pentagon surveys he read before enlisting. “I knew going in that if I ever managed to achieve that level of elite forces, that it would be a different ball game.”

The South Carolina native turned Atlanta resident never experienced any of the physical hazing feared by many LGBT soldiers, and the handful of comrades he confided in seemed unconcerned with his orientation. But Biro said he heard his fair share of gay slurs, and even earned a not-so-friendly name from a few particularly persistent bullies.

“They called me ‘Ranger Girl,’” said Biro, who said things got worse in the months initially following the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, before higher-ups made it clear that anti-gay bullying would be punished. “Once (they) put that out, it changed everything overnight.”

Biro’s story is typical across the military, as attitudes have slowly changed from the top down, according to Matt Thorn, Executive Director of OutServe-SLDN—a nonprofit watchdog group serving LGBT military personnel.

“Our membership has grown steadily since repeal, as individuals can be authentic in their service,” said Thorn, adding that the group continues to work on key issues like discharge upgrades for LGB service members kicked out under DADT.

He pointed to the plight of transgender soldiers as another area for growth in the military. In July, Sgt. Shane Ortega, a transgender man, made international headlines after Army officials insisted he wear a female dress uniform, according to a story published by The Washington Post.

Biro pointed to the incident as proof that there is still plenty of room for improvement in the military’s attitude toward LGBT soldiers. Regardless, he said he feels the repeal has brought the military closer.

And while there’s not a special person in his life right now, Biro knows when there is, he won’t have to hide him from his fellow reservists.

“They can love it or leave it!” he said, laughing.