U.S. Military Ends ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for Gay TroopsDavid Lerman
Today, for the first time in his military career, U.S. Air Force Captain Eddy Sweeney will be able to serve his country without hiding his sexual identity.
“I don’t have to worry about someone trying to ‘out’ me out of spite,” said Sweeney, a gay intelligence officer who is stationed in Germany. “I’m just glad that that burden is gone.”
After decades of political fights and legal challenges, the Pentagon today officially ends its 18-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has prevented gay service members from revealing their sexual orientation.
Troops who identify themselves as gay or lesbian will no longer face automatic discharge.
“As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love,” President Barack Obama said in a written statement. “Our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian services members.”
Critics, such as the Washington-based Family Research Council, say the policy change may hinder military readiness. “Using the military to advance a liberal social agenda will only do harm to the military’s ability to fulfill its mission,” said council President Tony Perkins in a written statement.
Still, polls have found broad public support for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with 77 percent of Americans supporting repeal in a Washington Post-ABC News survey when Congress approved the change in December.
“It’s a major shift, not only for the military but for our country,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a support group for gays. “The military will be stronger because we got rid of this discriminatory law that forces military members to lie.”
There are an estimated 66,000 gay and lesbian troops on active duty, said Sarvis, citing a UCLA study. More than 14,000 have been discharged for being gay since 1993, when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was adopted.
The Pentagon, which has been preparing for the change for months, said 2.3 million service members have now been trained in what the repeal will mean for daily military life.
“I’m committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon today.
Still, there will be no immediate changes to eligibility standards for military benefits. The Defense of Marriage Act, which doesn’t recognize gay unions, prohibits extending benefits such as medical care and housing allowances to same-sex couples, according to a Defense Department policy guidance issued in January.
Standards of personal conduct governing harassment, dress and public displays of affection, among other things, will apply uniformly to all troops regardless of sexual orientation, the policy memo said.
All service members may continue to designate a beneficiary such as a partner for certain benefits, including life insurance and the military’s Thrift Savings Plan.
‘More Tolerant’ Force
“With implementation of the new law fully in place, we are a stronger joint force, a more tolerant joint force, a force of more character and more honor, more in keeping with our values,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Panetta at a press conference.
For Danny Hernandez, a 24-year-old Texan who was discharged from the Marines for being gay last year, the policy repeal is an opportunity to re-enlist.
“I want to go back,” said Hernandez, who was a Marine lance corporal and now works for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “Personally, I’m very excited. I put a lot of effort into it to be successful in the Marine Corp. You make that commitment and you want to fulfill it.”
Troops who were discharged for being gay and who want to re-enlist “will be evaluated according to the same criteria and service requirements applicable to all prior-service members seeking re-entry,” the Pentagon policy memo said, with “no preferential treatment” accorded to gay applicants.
To mark the repeal, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network today will hold 100 “Repeal Day celebrations” across the country, with “hundreds” of supporters expected at rallies in New York and Washington and smaller numbers elsewhere.
Sarvis said he doesn’t expect most gay troops to make public declarations today.
Some signs of change will be subtle, he said, such as a soldier displaying a photo of his or her same-sex partner in the barracks.
“You’ll see a series of small steps,” he said. “These statements will come about over a period of days, weeks and years.”
For Sweeney, the Air Force intelligence officer, not much will change in his daily life.
“It’ll just be like any other day,” he said. “The only thing that will change is that I don’t have to compromise my integrity in talking about my personal life.”
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