Sgt. Joshua Gravett U.S. Army (courtesy photo)
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the law of the land for nearly two decades. Some 13,500 soldiers were discharged simply because of their sexual orientation, according to numbers from the Department of Defense.
The battle for repeal was hard fought in the United States Congress and nearly didn’t happen. Democrats in the Senate attempted to include repeal language into the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, but Republictan senators objected to using the usually bi-partisan NDAA as the avenue for repeal.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) and Susan Collins (R-Me.) introduced a standalone bill called the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act of 2010,” which was passed as one of the final acts of the 111th Congress.
“By ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” President Barack Obama said at the time, fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise to work toward eliminating the discriminatory law.
Following Obama’s signature, military leaders were charged with training and implementing the change in policy while gay military groups continued to urge caution on coming out during the transition.
Certification was handed down July 22, 2011, and after a 60-day grace period, DADT was officially repealed at midnight on Sept. 20, 2011.
In the year since, the military has celebrated a number of gay firsts. The first-ever promotion ceremony attended by a same-sex spouse, the first-ever sanctioned participation of uniformed, active-duty soldiers in a Gay Pride parade and the first-ever openly gay general in the military’s history have all happened now that soldiers are no longer forced to remain in the closet.
Challenges for gay service members remain
Gravett, a native of Marietta, Ga., says that despite repeal, challenges remain for gay and lesbian soldiers.
“With the military, it is still no one’s business about your personal life so there was no need to come out officially to anyone,” Gravett told GA Voice through a recent email interview.
The culture of coming out is still tough for some gay and lesbian soldiers, Gravett said. Finding a network of support half a world away from home can be challenging for those who don’t know where to look.
“Even though the repeal has happened, not everyone is out. So finding other gays to talk to can be challenging,” Gravett said.
How did Gravett come out? He showed up for assignment at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg wearing a “Legalize Gay” t-shirt. And when his fellow soldiers ask, he now tells.
“Everyone seems to be very supportive,” Gravett said. “I tend to think most people in my generation are more progressive in the way that they think. Some are curious on how long I knew and how it felt to hide it.”
Repeal has opened the doors for real policy change, something Gravett hopes will lead to greater acceptance and equal rights for all LGBT people.
“I am hoping that one day we will see the same benefits as straight couples for gay couples. Most Americans support the military and often tend to take our side. If they see that a gay service member is willing to fight for the rights of other Americans, maybe America will support them in their rights to marry or have a family,” Gravett added.
Spousal benefits, on-base housing and deployment are some of the ways that the military still fails to treat gay and lesbian soldiers equally with their heterosexual counterparts, Gravett said.
Thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, the military is forbidden from officially recognizing same-sex unions, regardless of where they are performed. While DOMA has been found unconstitutional in at least three different ongoing legal challenges, the law remains in effect.
Continued support in the post-DADT era
Organizations like OutServe and others continue to provide resources for gay and lesbian soldiers, both in and out of the closet.
OutServe was formed during the repeal fight and quickly grew to one of the largest organizations advocating for gay and lesbian inclusion in the military.
“OutServe is still doing the same thing we were doing before the repeal, we’re still connecting and supporting thousands of LGBT military personnel,” Ty Walrod, co-director of OutServe, told GA Voice in a recent phone interview.
Walrod said OutServe is now comprised of some 5,000 active-duty gay and lesbian soldiers. Many joined after DADT was officially repealed.
OutServe publishes a bi-monthly magazine specifically for gay and lesbian soldiers that is distributed to military bases across the world. The group also organizes the largest annual conference for out military personnel.
Set for October, the OutServe International Leadership Conference will bring together hundreds of active-duty out military members.
“Before, when we had “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a conference like that would have been impossible,” Walrod said.
Increased visibility has come with out servicemembers, but Walrod acknowledged the work that needs to take place before military policies for gay and lesbian soldiers mirror those for heterosexual soldiers.
“Spouses don’t get equal treatment. Co-location at the same base is a challenge for OutServe members. OutServe members want to have access to the same working conditions and the same benefits, rights and responsibilities as everyone else in the military. There are certain federal statutes that stand in the way of that like DOMA,” Walrod said.
With continued progress on LGBT equality, the military still has many firsts in the coming years. From allowing transgender soldiers to openly serve to providing spousal benefits for families of out soldiers, there is much left to advocate. But the military now has a loud, and proud, voice to continue that march.