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Why I tried to
join the National Guard

Why I tried to
join the National Guard


On May 30 three Soulforce activists were rejected by the Minnesota National Guard because of the U.S. military's antigay "don't ask, don't tell" policy. This would-be recruit--an organizer of this spring's Equality Ride--is dead serious about signing up, and she'll be back at the recruiting office later this summer with reinforcements.

Never before have I been the first in the history of this country to do anything. But on May 30, I had the chance to say to myself, Here is something new under the sun.

The U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy created the opportunity for Jake Reitan, Ezekiel Montgomery, and myself to be among the first openly gay people to attempt to be accepted by the armed forces. And so on that Tuesday we three presented ourselves at a Twin Cities-area recruiting center and offered to start the enlistment process for the Armed Services.

"Don't ask" is a federal law, spawned in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, which prohibits openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people from serving in the military. Not only does it forbid such a person from signing up for duty, it also sets up ground for dismissal for the estimated 65,000 LGB soldiers currently in the military. (Being transgender is a separate issue altogether under military policy).

Yet the military's own recruitment handbook is ambiguous. An enlistment interview may abruptly end if an applicant has three convictions for driving under the influence, but it does not officially end if the applicant says, "I am gay." And "don't ask, don't tell"--in theory at least--forbids recruiters from asking applicants about their sexuality.

Yet on the morning of May 30--even before we began the application process--an officer unequivocally stated to the press that the enlistment process would be cut short for any applicants who stated they were openly gay or lesbian. But when the process would end exactly remained in question.

So the three of us entered the Minnesota National Guard office, sat through the interview, filled out forms, and answered questions about our health, education, drug use, and other things. The rule in practice works like this: If at the end of the enlistment interview there is no reason for disqualification other than sexual orientation, the applicant is informed that he or she is rejected based on the military's prohibition against "homosexual conduct"--but is also told of his or her right to an appeal.

According to the military, an appeal consists of a statement and two letters of recommendation in which the recruit provides evidence that he or she is not actually gay in order to gain a "favorable decision." As such, there is no existing appeal format for Jake, Ezekiel, and me. We will draft our own kind of appeal this summer in which we tell the military why we are qualified, openly gay applicants.

Let me be clear about my sincere intention to serve: I will enlist with honor and purpose. I will serve my country with pride, but I will do it only as an openly gay woman.

Jake and Ezekiel are also serious. After all, our military is missing out on talented people. Jake and I are both college graduates who graduated magna cum laude. I am not flattering myself here. Rather, I am concretely illustrating the absurdity of this policy. Why is the military not asking what they are missing out on?

I also have my personal reasons for trying to sign up for military service. I met several gay and lesbian cadets while on the Equality Ride this spring. They need our help. Ten lesbians banded together to pool a $670 donation. Cadets at West Point fought alongside a professor to have us come into their classroom, even though the military police arrested us for stepping foot onto campus. I still get letters from soldiers currently serving or now retired, who all tell me about the fearful and damaging atmosphere condoned by the antigay policy.

If we three succeed in our appeal and are permitted to serve, we will make it known to the world. But looking at federal law, I predict that a sit-in at the Minneapolis recruitment office is likely later this summer. In fact, sit-ins in 31 cities across America are likely because May 30 was a trial run for a larger Soulforce Youth campaign planned for August and September.

Challenging "don't ask" is controversial. Personal views on the war in Iraq and the military complicate our protest. But whether you fall on the classically conservative or liberal side of the spectrum, one of the following facts should raise an alarm:

First, more than 10,000 soldiers have been kicked out under "don't ask, don't tell," and the discharges and violence toward LGBT soldiers only increased after the legislation became law in 1993.

Second, the government has spent an estimated $364 million in taxpayer money retraining soldiers to replace those who have been discharged. Among the discharged personnel are more than 400 service members with critical knowledge of languages that include Korean, Farsi, and Persian.

No one should be denied a job or fired from their career because of sexual orientation. "Don't ask, don't tell" protects the prejudices of heterosexists in the military and does nothing to protect the career, dignity, or safety of gay service members.

The American public does not understand the real effects of this policy on the capacity of the armed services and the lives of openly LGBT people. Many people see "don't ask, don't tell" as a good compromise--and generally they are people who are not gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. LGBT people understand the closet. We understand all the ways in which a person's sexual orientation is "told" without being directly questioned. What did you do for dinner? Where do you go on leave? Why aren't you dating anyone? Who was that on the phone? There are an infinite number of ways to be outed, and "don't ask" requires that a gay service member struggle daily to hide her orientation at the risk of losing her career.

We know the work does not end simply because they no longer ask, "Are you gay?" during the enlistment interview.

Our attempt to join the military on May 30 was an effort to fight for the rights of all LGB people who have it in their hearts to serve their country. That may or may not be a foreign idea to you, but we must agree to fight for the rights of everyone to be eligible to serve in the armed services. The cloak of secrecy demanded by "don't ask, don't tell" does nothing to affirm our humanity. It is still government-sanctioned discrimination that makes us second-class citizens, and to say that it is OK for a gay person to serve as long as she is quiet about it only adds insult to injury. The implication remains that a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person is not fit for service.

The military is more than a war machine. It is a guidepost in our culture. Even if you do not agree with its current actions or its very nature, you must recognize that it means something in this society when the largest employer of youth, one of the most powerful symbols in our country, and a core player in American values and traditions says, "Haven Herrin, you are not good enough, and in fact you are a threat to our nation's security."

That is the statement I am fighting, and it comes straight out of conservative religious thought. Both the meaning of "don't ask, don't tell" and its source are dangerous to LGBT equality. I hope you can support us at Soulforce in fighting this outdated discrimination.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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