Four Years After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—The Military Is Much Better for Gay Troops
But better doesn’t mean great
“I was told it would only be 23 people, so this is better,” Maj. Gen. Patricia Rose told a packed audience at the McChord Club at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
Rose was the keynote speaker for the First Annual Pride Month celebration held June 17 on the base. She is the director of logistics at Air Force Materiel Command — and the military’s highest ranking openly gay officer.
The audience was filled with service members both gay and straight, their families, veterans and community leaders. It was one of several separate Pride Month observances being hosted at U.S. military installations across the country — and around the world.
“This is significant for those of us who had to live under the shadow of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Rose told attendees.
In 2011, Pres. Barack Obama repealed the DADT policy which required gay, lesbian and bisexual service members not to discuss their orientation or pursue same-sex relationships while in the service. Activists widely hailed the repeal of the policy as a major step forward.
Soon after, the Pentagon began recognizing same-sex marriages, making the military more gay friendly than many states around the country. When some states refused to issue DOD ID cards to same-sex National Guard spouses, the military stepped in.
“We pushed back — not just because our service members and their families deserved it, but because everyone’s rights had to be protected,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during a Pride Month observance at the Pentagon.
Though many troops have embraced their now openly gay comrades, not everyone is excited about the changes. Anti-gay prejudice hasn’t been eliminated entirely from the military. And the repeal of DADT initially came with a catch.
Gay and lesbian troops had to register complaints of discrimination with Inspector General offices rather than the Military Equal Opportunity Program, which is meant to protect service members from discrimination.
LGBT service members and their families — though no longer violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice by living openly — were still not fully protected under the those regulations.
During the event at JBLM, some service members complained of leaders that had tacitly endorsed discrimination, and of their spouses and dependents being shunned at community events.
Overt prejudice in the military has receded and a more insidious and subtle form has taken its place in some corners.
But there have been some significant changes during Pride Month this year. On June 9, Carter announced that the military had updated its equal opportunity policies to protect service members from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“[This update] ensures that the department, like the rest of the federal government, treats sexual-orientation-based discrimination the same way it treats discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, age and national origin,” Carter said.
Though the event was hailed as the JBLM’s first annual Pride Month observance, many service members at the event noted it’s not the first time an event like this has been held at the facility. A previous event at Madigan Army Medical Center on base had a notably low turnout.
The event’s planners, Senior Airman Kyle Simpson and Senior Airman Bridgette Anguiano had scant time to plan this year’s observance— just 30 days to rally organizations and a guest speaker. That’s why the high turnout of soldiers and airmen coming out to learn and support the event surprised them.
“I’m just overjoyed at the turnout,” Simpson said.
Robert McCormick, an 18-year-old military kid and a leading member with the Olympia-based Stonewall Youth tabled for the organization at the McChord Club. “GBLT youth on base don’t really have resources or any place to go,” McCormick said. “We want them to know that we’re here for them.”
His father, Sgt. First Class Jason McCormick, stood alongside the table in uniform next to his son. “It’s good to see the DOD is finally officially acknowledging gay people as a protected group after all these years,” he said.
The 19-year Army veteran beamed as he talked about his son’s activism. “He’s done something that I think I would have been very scared to do if I were in his shoes,” he said of Jason’s coming out. “He’s become a leader in the community, and I’m incredibly proud of that.”
Staff Sgt. Joe Carrillo said that the change is a long time coming, but that there’s still a “generational gap.” Some older veterans see the presence of gays as a disruptive new cultural fad. But Carrillo said that even if not always open, there have always been gay soldiers whether old-school veterans know it or not.
“We’re not new, we’ve always been here,” Carrillo said. “We’re the same professionals we’ve always been.”
He said that he loves his job and what the military gives him, but that he’s had difficulty trying to get his husband to appreciate it. Spouses of gay soldiers haven’t always had the warmest reception since DADT’s repeal.
“How we treat each other, and each others spouses reflects who we are,” Carrillo said. He added that the trend is overall positive, and the huge turnout at the event is evidence for it.
“When you learn that the guy next to you who’s been watching your back for 10 years is gay, that changes perspectives” McCormick said, echoing the sentiment.
Iraq War veteran Anna Pike and Erika Laurentz — a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran who participated in combat missions throughout Southeast Asia — were at the event representing the transgender community.
Pike works as a consultant on transgender issues with private companies in the Puget Sound area. She said that her six years as an intelligence specialist with the Air Force were at times stifling — and that she didn’t feel comfortable being herself. At the same time though, she said her military experience has helped her as a leader and communicator as she works in transgender advocacy.
“It’s important for us to be here because there are 15,000 [transgender people] in the military” Laurentz said. Her numbers are consistent with estimates made by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
As of today, military officials still have the authority to kick out transgender troops on the basis of health reasons — a policy opposed by the American Medical Association. However, both the Army and the Air Force have made that process more difficult by requiring senior civilian officials to approve these discharges.
Rose talked about her experiences and those of other service members she knew impacted by DADT. She also discussed the importance of diversity — and why it makes the military stronger.
She used World War II as an example, and the role diversity played in the Allied war effort. “[The Axis powers] wanted to impose their own monolithic culture,” she said. By contrast, she said that the Allied powers represented the power and strength of people from different backgrounds coming together.
In particular she highlighted Tuskegee airmen and Navajo code talkers. She recounted the story of how British mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing helped win the war and pioneer computer science, only to face anti-gay discrimination after the war.
“Pride month isn’t about us, nothing in the military is about you … it’s about being part of something bigger,” Rose said. She motioned to the American flag on stage to emphasize her point. “Diversity is not the ceremonial fringe, it’s the fabric that runs through this.”
“I got to talk about the two things I’m most passionate about — leadership and people being their authentic self,” Rose said after her speech. “In my military, we value what everyone can bring,” she said.
Anguiano in particular said that the success of the event is a point of pride for her. “I’ve really been at a crossroad in my career,” the airmen said. “After hearing [Rose’s] speech today, it’s making me think I want to stay in.”
The lead up was stressful — not the least of which because of commenters complaining about the event on JBLM’s official Facebook page. Simpson got involved in the fray and responded to negative comments before deciding it was an effort in futility.
“Ultimately they all have the right to their opinions,” he said.
One senior officer at the event said that negative feedback from “salty retirees” is unsurprising. “But that’s why having events like this important,” he said. “If they came out and actually saw [the event], they might change their mind.”
Carrillo said that he’s too busy with soldiering and his life with his husband to get hung up on what detractors think. “Haters gonna hate hate hate” he quipped.