Op-ed: For Soldiers, a Coming-Out Parade? Or a Private Party?
BY Steven Petrow
September 19 2011 5:00 AM ET
Q: I’ve been in a clandestine relationship with my partner for almost three years now and with the official repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on September 20, I want to understand more about how open we’re allowed to be legally. Honestly, after all these years in the closet with her I’m ready to throw a huge party and tell the whole world that we’re a couple — and I want her to take me to events on base that other spouses are invited to. She says I’m moving too fast for her, but I say we’ve got the law at our backs. Whose side are you on?
A: Mr. Manners has a long-standing policy of not taking sides in the middle of couples, since it’s a dangerous place to be. One of you may want to kill the messenger!
But don’t worry, I’m not punting on your question. I completely understand your desire to put the “don’t ask, don’t tell” part of your lives into the history bin and be recognized as the committed couple you’ve been for three years now. My God, how could you not be frustrated? And coming out is good for you, since every study shows that being out and recognized as partners makes for a better, stronger relationship. But I also understand your partner’s reluctance to charge blindly into unknown territory — that can be a dangerous strategy in the military.
To start with the law, I asked David McKean, legal director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, for his point of view. He emailed me: “Starting September 20, the service member can no longer be fired because he or she is gay and chooses to come out. The rest is up to the service member. Service members can also be as out as they want, as long as they are complying with all other sexual-orientation neutral regulations.”
In other words, you are right that you have “the law at your backs.” But your dilemma is not entirely a legal one, is it? In fact, your question is very similar to one posed by a great number of gay couples, when one partner is willing to be out — but the other fears for his or her job and livelihood. So whether legal or not, it’s your partner’s decision whether to come out in the workplace.
Is she ready? Does she have a plan? Does she feel this disclosure will affect her day-to-day life, or her military career? Old prejudices can still exist, and it’s quite possible that your partner could hit the lavender ceiling if she comes out. As I would counsel couples in any industry, it’s best for each of you to make the rules for your respective work situations and for the other partner to go along.
I also checked in with a former United States Air Force master sergeant, Rick de Beauclair, who had this wise perspective on the need for, yes, more patience: “After years of hiding one's sexuality in the military, it would be a scary feeling to suddenly be completely open and free in my relationship. Yes, the law is in place, but I'd want to slowly test the waters among my military friends and coworkers. It's like coming out of the closet to your family and friends — one has to do it when they feel comfortable and safe.”
But what you do in your off-base lives is a different matter. I can’t see any reason why you shouldn’t throw that big party for yourselves and tell your friends and families your good news. If you have an extra invitation, please send it this way!