On September 20, 2011, gay service members, their advocates, and their champions on Capitol Hill and elsewhere celebrated the formal end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy while opponents predicted the military's gradual demise.
Yet six months later, it's no surprise which side has the facts and which side continues to be mired in fiction. According to one recent survey, a significant majority of service members report that DADT repeal simply hasn't affected their mission.
“I think the success of repeal is at a far more advanced stage than I had ever anticipated,” said Josh Seefried, cofounder of the group OutServe, which claims more than 50 chapter groups worldwide and is planning an international conference in Orlando, Fla., this fall. “Just the sheer number of people who have come out has changed military culture very quickly.”
A March 12 Military Times poll showed nearly three fourths of respondents said that the effect of an individual coming out in their units had no impact. An increased number of respondents in this year's poll said that they expected repeal to have no net effect compared to last year's survey.
“The poll data tell me that implementation is proceeding along the lines of what we envisioned and that the United States was not going to be any different in terms of successful implementation than what we had seen in other foreign militaries that have moved to a policy allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly,” said Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director Aubrey Sarvis, who is leaving his position later this year. Last fall Sarvis's organization sued the federal government on behalf of a group of gay service members and their spouses who are denied equal benefits, such as medical care and military housing, because of the Defense of Marriage Act and the definition of “spouse” in the federal code. The Obama administration’s Justice Department has declined to defend the 1996 law in the suit.
“As the [Defense] Department looks at implementation, they also have to look at how gay and lesbian service members are being treated with respect to their benefits,” Sarvis said.
Maj. Shannon McLaughlin, lead plaintiff in the SLDN suit, said that over the past half-year she has noticed a change in the way her colleagues talk to her — not on the actual day that repeal took effect, perhaps, but gradually in the weeks and months that followed. Everyday conversations that used to feel tense gave way to the easy banter about weekend plans and families that binds other workplaces, she said.
“I think it took a great weight off my straight counterparts at work,” McLaughlin said. “Now they could ask without risking my job. [DADT] drove an artificial wedge between us. Now it’s nice, and I didn’t know what that was like.”
Still, work remains. A lot of McLaughlin’s straight colleagues have been “shocked” to learn that despite repeal, there are no explicit antidiscrimination provisions to protect gay service members, in addition to the benefits inequity central to the lawsuit of which she is a part. McLaughlin also encounters the problem firsthand in her position as a judge advocate general, a legal advisory role for the military.
“I don’t have the tools to be able to protect soldiers like me,” she said. “DADT repeal is a huge step forward, but it isn’t a complete solution.”
Capt. Matthew Phelps, who was out for seven years before he began to serve after the September 11, 2001 attacks, is one of the few officers known to have come out publicly in the Marines, the Armed Services branch with the reputation for being most resistant to change. He’s considered himself out since the day repeal took effect, with support from immediate superiors and no negative issues. As a commander at the initial pipeline for recruits who come through the West Coast, his considerations focus on how out to be, not unlike the question that faces gay employees in many other fields.
“It’s about establishing an appropriate climate,” Phelps said of his efforts to set a tone of inclusion and respect. “I don’t walk up to each of the recruits and say, ‘Hello, I’m gay and I’m the company commander,’ and I don’t do that to my Marines either. One of the best ways for me to set an example is to live openly and to fight stereotypes people may have about what it means to be gay.”
Less than two months after repeal took effect last fall, Phelps asked if he could take a same-sex date to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball on November 10.
“I went to my boss and said, ‘I’ve been in the Marine Corps 10 years and I want to take a date.’ I’ve never taken a date before. I think they were a little nervous on my behalf. The idea of being described as anything other than a Marine was something that concerned people. They didn’t want me to single myself out. That’s not really what we do.”
Phelps and his date were the only male same-sex couple in attendance among 1,800 guests, with one female same-sex couple also there. Everyone came up to say hello, he said.
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“As part of this monitoring process, the Services and Combatant Commands provide regular status reports to the DoD senior leadership,” Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said in a statement. “These reports include assessments on the effects of repeal on readiness, unit cohesion, effectiveness, recruiting and retention.”
Repeal observers say monthly engagement with commanders in the field is likely, given that congressional authorizing committees will ask for reporting from Defense Department officials, perhaps at the 12-month mark. There are currently no such hearings scheduled, though it’s possible the issue could be brought up in other hearings not specific to DADT: The Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel is scheduled to meet next month, for example, and could address ongoing repeal.
The Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee, said one Hill source, is unlikely to hold a hearing devoted to the matter. “They wouldn’t hear from the service secretaries or from [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta what they would want to hear. It wouldn’t be a win for them.”
Not everyone in the Armed Forces is on board with repeal, of course. Though about 5% of respondents in the Military Times poll said an individual coming out in their unit had a positive effect, about one fifth of respondents said a fellow service member’s coming out had a negative impact.
And some in the latter category have not been silent about their disapproval. When a photograph of Sgt. Brandon Morgan kissing his partner at a Hawaii Marine base upon his return from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan went viral last month, Master Sgt. Corey Wade, stationed in Kandahar, called the image “disgusting and outrageous” in a letter to the editor of Stars & Stripes, which had run the photo.
“The vast majority of military members I know do not support homosexuality in the military in any way, let alone homosexuality on its own,” Wade wrote. “Yet the voices of opposition to homosexuality continue to not be heard by biased media outlets. ... I can’t always choose who I room with. But as a Christian, it goes against my faith and the clear word of God (for those Christians who disagree, blow the dust off your Bibles and take a read) to practice such an act; it is clearly a sin.”
Repeal opponents, some who spoke of “harmful consequences” in the days after military officials gave the green light for ending DADT, have largely cast their own continued disapproval for open service not along the lines of threats to unit cohesion, but of threatened religious liberty — a common thread employed by both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail (the candidates compete with Mitt Romney in the Illinois primary Tuesday).
“The entire administration ... has imposed ‘zero tolerance’ policies against persons who are not enthusiastic supporters of LGBT law,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and an antigay pundit whose television appearances have waned in the post-repeal era, told Stars & Stripes. “This is what we predicted, but the effects will not be seen quickly, especially in an election year.”