Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Would Honor Gay Veterans

Last week's votes in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to repeal the onerous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy governing lesbian and gay members of the military is a hopeful sign. But it's far from a done deal, and only time will tell whether the federal law that prohibits gay and lesbian service personnel from disclosing their sexual preference will finally end after nearly two decades.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or DADT for short, was a compromise worked out in 1993 between the Clinton administration and Congress after then-President Bill Clinton failed to deliver on on a campaign promise to lift the military's outright ban on gays and lesbians, imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.

Standards Imposed on Gays Alone

Simply, DADT is unfair. It imposes a set of standards of conduct upon one small, definable group that isn't required of the rest of the military. Heterosexuals aren't required to keep mum about their own sexuality nor are they prevented from asking fellow heterosexuals about their sex lives.

I know what it's like to keep quiet about being gay while serving in the military. I served in the Air Force prior to DADT under the old Reagan edict, which required that recruits be asked whether they were gay, because, as the policy at the time dictated: "Homosexuality is incompatible with military service."

A Brighter Future in the Military

Like many young people, I came to the military seeking a better life. Having dropped out of college and with little idea of what I wanted to do with my life, I summoned the courage one March day to enter an Air Force recruiting station in suburban Denver.

The recruiting officer was persuasive, advising that my college credits would earn me an additional rank (and thus higher pay) right from the start. As part of the screening process, I was asked, of course, whether I was gay. And of course I said, "No." You could say that I lied. But I knew from talking with other gay men serving at the time that saying you weren't gay was just something you did to get in. Besides, I told myself, I could keep quiet about being gay because I had a lifetime of practice.

I passed the military entrance exam and a physical and soon I was off to San Antonio to begin basic training. A welcome sense of calm overtook me. I knew that I had taken the right step to a brighter future.

"If You're Hiding, We Will Find You'

Except that it wasn't. At a ceremony to recognize our completion of basic training, the base commander gave a speech in which he said, "If you're homosexual, you have no business being here." As much as anything, it was the tone in which it was said, as if to say, "If you're hiding, we will find you."

I was shaken by the commander's statement. It was as if he had said it directly to me. Though I went on to complete my technical school training and was subsequently assigned to an Air Force base in West Texas, the damage had been done. I became overwhelmed by doubt and depression, fearing that if my secret were found out, only the worst of fates -- court-martial, for example -- awaited me.

My military service ended some three months later after I approached my supervisor about a discharge. I didn't tell him I was gay, just that I thought I was incompatible with military service. A compassionate man, he was sorry to me go, but worked with me to get me discharged. Less than eight months after I had enlisted, I was heading back to Denver as a civilian once more.

Gays and Lesbians Serve in Militaries Around the World

I, of course, am not alone in this story. Thousands of gays and lesbians have seen their military careers cut short because of who they are. Under DADT, more than 13,500 lesbian and gay service members have been removed from military service since the law went into effect in 1994, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy organization.

It doesn't have to be that way, as other nations have proven. The militaries in Australia, Israel, Great Britain and Canada allow lesbians and gays to serve openly and studies have shown that allowing "open service" has no adverse effect on enrollment or retention.

Millions of lesbian and gay Americans have served in the nation's armed forces. Many of them have died doing so, and their service should be honored as much as anyone's on this Memorial Day holiday, which recognizes our country's fallen heroes. It's time to honor their contributions with an additional gesture by repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Whether members of Congress have the courage that gay and lesbian service members have displayed through the years remains to be seen. But it's time for lawmakers to do the honorable thing and let lesbians and gays serve openly and proudly.