Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) does not simply disallow gay soldiers from serving — it marginalizes gays. Keeping this antiquated law is to continue institutionalizing discrimination within the military. Since 1941, the U.S. has discharged more than 110,000 soldiers for being gay. Since Obama took office, the U.S. has discharged more than 13,000 troops under DADT. We are firing good soldiers who have put their lives on the line to protect our country. We have lost our men and women not to war, but to our own bigotry. Thankfully, times are changing, because recent studies have shown that service members think positively of the repeal of DADT. At long last, openly gay service members are able to pridefully serve their country in a military capacity.
December 2009. Greenwich Village, New York. I head to a civil disobedience meeting, held in an abandoned theater. Scattered music stands and tattered curtains decorate the place. I seat myself among dozens of demonstrators-in-training. Veteran activist, and veteran, Justin Crockett Elzie, the first Marine to challenge DADT with a federal court case in 1993, sits across the room. It has been more than a decade since his coming out against DADT, and yet he continues to fight for gay rights. A few days later, Justin and the other demonstrators chain themselves to the marriage license bureau protesting for marriage equality. I had school that day.
Today, Justin has written a memoir, Playing by the Rules, retelling his time serving as an out Marine. His memoir reverberates with many people who have been discharged under DADT. To show how scarring DADT is to the military, Justin recounts being in the closet back in 1993:
“I had seen examples of how the Marine Corps had gone to lengths in the past to protect its image and from my experiences with the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) it made me a bit paranoid. The military and NCIS have a history of tracking gay service members and ruining their lives. Because of the clandestine way the military seeks out gay service members, one learns to not trust people in general, to lie, and to strategize to survive in a hostile environment. Over the years, I had learned how to ride that fine line and to be as out as I could without getting caught. I had come to loathe the hypocrisy and the witchhunts in the Marines and the Navy that destroyed so many of my friends’ lives. I wanted to throw it back in their faces and stand up and fight the injustice that I had seen throughout my ten years in the Corps.”
Justin’s fear and paranoia is shared by many other closeted soldiers. Gay soldiers cannot trust others to watch their backs because they fear being outed. Unit cohesion is destroyed. The witch-hunt mentality set by the NCIS does not build military unity, but damages it. How can soldiers feel safe in each others’ hands when they do not feel safe around each other?
But take fear out of the equation. Repeal DADT, and people’s attitudes change. In response to Obama’s challenge to DADT back in 2010, the Department of Defense conducted a comprehensive review on the impacts of repealing DADT by surveying service members’ opinions for over nine months. The research shows that when service members without deployment experience were asked if their units’ effectiveness would be affected by the repeal, “almost 80 percent said repeal would have a positive, a mixed or no effect.”
But this varies with service members with deployment experience whose surveys came back with “56 percent [saying] it would have a positive, mixed, or no effect, and 44 percent [saying] it would have a negative effect” if they were deployed “in a field environment or out at sea.” This is significantly different from the previous group, and may even suggest that having gays in the military will break down unit cohesion during mission deployment, thereby risking lives. But consider the DOD’s last statistic: When asked about a DADT repeal’s effect “in intense combat situations” or “when a crisis or negative event happens that affects your unit,” the predictions of negative effects went down. About 30 percent said that repeal would have a negative effect, while around 70 percent said it would have a positive, mixed, or no effect on their unit’s effectiveness. What this statistical discrepancy says is that in times of crisis, troops focus on completing the mission and surviving, not on gays acting out sexually. Having gays in the military makes straight soldiers uncomfortable when sharing bathrooms, but would not affect their carrying out a mission, or military training, or mission strategy, or deploying equipment. There is no reason to blame gays for poor military performance.
The only way to snap soldiers out of this ignorant mentality is educate them about gay people. For too long, demagogues like McCain have made gays look like sexual fiends. They focus our attention to showers-scenarios but shy away from real issues like military spending. For too long, good soldiers like Justin Elzie have been punished when they should have been rewarded. For too long, the military has worked divided. But now they will work as one.
“They gave a medal for killing two men, but a discharge for loving one.”
—Leonard Matlovich, 1975