wanted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who
served as a sergeant in the Marines. So he joined the elite
fighting corps in 2000.
Fricke knew, even
as a teenager, that to join the armed forces meant
giving up personal freedoms. What he didn't realize
was how much more difficult that would be for a gay
man--who would have to be closeted.
Two years later,
while he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Fricke had had
enough. A friend and fellow marine was going on about having
sex with women when Fricke blurted out, "You
know, I'm not attracted to women."
Fricke, now a
sergeant, says he half-expected to be kicked out of the
military right then and there. But his peer's
reaction shocked him: "Oh, really?
That's no big deal."
deal?" Fricke recalls thinking at the time.
"Despite the hype about 'don't
ask, don't tell' and the trouble gays would
cause in the ranks [if they were allowed to serve
openly], it was not that big of a deal. And it
wouldn't be today. I remained Corporal Fricke, and I
happened to be gay."
Indeed, a recent
Zogby poll shows that 73% of service members say they
would be comfortable serving alongside gays and lesbians. A
poll in 1993--the year the Pentagon's
antigay "don't ask, don't tell"
policy went into effect--reported that only 13%
of enlisted personnel supported gay soldiers,
demonstrating why there is now a strong push to end the ban
on gays serving openly. A bill to repeal
"don't ask, don't tell" is being
reintroduced this year in Congress. It's gaining an
impressive list of cosponsors, while the list of
retired military leaders publicly coming out against
the ban is growing into an all-star gallery of top brass.
In January, John
M. Shalikashvili, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, and former secretary of Defense William Cohen both
publicly urged Congress to reconsider the
"don't ask, don't tell" policy
The Zogby poll
showed that nearly one in four service members report
knowing that someone in their unit is gay or lesbian,
including 21% of those in combat units. "We
have known anecdotally that many gay service members
are opening up to at least some of their colleagues,"
says Steve Ralls, communications director for the
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington,
D.C.-based group advocating for gay soldiers.
"And those who know a gay colleague are more
open to repealing this discriminatory policy."
director of the Michael D. Palm Center (formerly known as
the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the
Military) at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, helped design the poll to test whether the
statistics would bear out the anecdotal evidence. "In
one sense the change is surprising because it has only
been a decade and a half since the policy was
instituted," says Belkin. "But there has been
huge cultural change and public opinion shift in that time,
and that affects the opinions of those who serve in
hasn't the ban gone the way of segregation,
especially during a time when qualified personnel are
desperately needed overseas? The problem, says Vince
Patton, 52, a retired U.S. Coast Guard master chief
petty officer, is that people from his generation are just
plain stuck. "Gen Xers are more accepting of
gays and lesbians and more tolerant in
general," he says. "It's more than just
an issue of sexual orientation for them. It's a
matter of freedom of expression. The under-40 crowd has
a lot more intelligence when it comes to these issues than
those from my era."
In 2003, Patton
participated in "Operation Handshake" as an
adviser to the USO, spending three weeks with U.S.
troops in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. While
talking with soldiers during a tour of Afghanistan, he
asked them if they had any problems serving alongside gays.
No one expressed a negative opinion.
cared only whether their fellow soldiers were willing to do
the job and watch their backs, Patton recalls. Being gay, or
Baptist, or Jewish, or whatever didn't matter
to them. "But then I took that conversation to
the commanding officers who were my age, and they all
said, 'Oh, hell, no!' " he says.
a former Army sergeant and recruiter who was discharged
under "don't ask, don't tell,"
saw firsthand how some commanders actually use the
policy against gays and lesbians. In fact, it wasn't
until she proved so successful as a
recruiter--and was on track to become the
youngest recruiting station commander ever--that her
superiors used her homosexuality against her. She even
went through a diversity training workshop during
which a new company commander made antigay comments.
officers set the tone, says Contreras, 31. "And when
it behooves someone to discriminate against you, and
they are able to do so under 'don't ask,
don't tell,' they will."
lieutenant general Claudia Kennedy, who served in the Army
from 1968 to 2000 and is heterosexual, has commanded
gay and lesbian service members since the 1970s. She
also broke ground in the military, having become the
first female three-star general in the U.S. Army in June
As a woman,
Kennedy is keenly aware of how the military perpetuates its
symbols of masculinity, and that makes it difficult for
straight service members to speak out on behalf of
their gay brethren. "The stigma attached is
huge," says Kennedy. "And there is such
pressure from Army alumni--those who have been
out of the military 10 or 20 years--for the Army
not to change.
bigger obligation," she continues, "is to do
what's right and to have the best qualified
military you can."
Even if the
policy changed tomorrow, however, institutional changes in
the military will take longer, predicts Contreras.
"When the policy changes, the cultural change
will take much longer," she says. "Gay
people in the military right now are not going to come out
en masse, because a policy change is not going to
change the way people think and feel."
In light of the
Zogby poll and the take-back of Congress by the
Democrats, Massachusetts congressman Marty Meehan, a
Democrat, released a statement in December revealing
his intention to reintroduce the Military Readiness
Enhancement Act, a bill to repeal "don't ask,
don't tell" that Meehan first introduced
in March 2005. "I will also be asking for the
first congressional hearings on gays in the military since
1993," Meehan wrote. "I know that when
my colleagues see and understand the evidence against
'don't ask, don't tell,' they
will be motivated to join me in the fight for
Fricke, who is
now 25 and plans to write a book about his experience,
agrees. "If the nation knew what this policy is
really doing and how lives are being ruined, it would
open their eyes," he says.