08.21.11

My 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' Life

As a gay man currently serving in the Air Force, I’ve suffered discrimination, depression, and blackmail. DADT repeal will change all that—and maybe save my career. By J. D. Smith

I was still in uniform when I stopped to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner on my way home from the base a few weeks ago. In the checkout line, a middle-aged woman insisted that she pay for my wine. We walked out of the store together while she asked me various questions: Where was I from? How old was I? What was my job in the Air Force?

Then she asked if I had a girlfriend.

I replied no, but that I had a boyfriend of a few months. Her initial reaction was shock, but then she began to ask more questions about how it was to be gay in the military and how I dealt with an environment built on "don’t ask, don’t tell." As we said goodbye she gave me a tight embrace and thanked me for my service. Then she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I supported this policy for our military, and I never realized what pain it caused people like you.” She wiped the tear from her eye and walked to her car. She, like millions of other Americans, and even fellow soldiers, would soon be meeting openly gay military-service members for the first time.

On Sept. 20, "don’t ask, don’t tell" will be formally repealed. For gays and lesbians currently serving, it will be a day on which we can go in to work and be honest about who we are without worrying about losing the careers we love. I grew up in a small town out West, in a religious family that was always very supportive of me going into the military. Signing up for the Air Force was something I had dreamed of since I was a child. For me, there was no other path in life. In elementary school I carried around the Air Force Academy college catalog in my backpack wherever I went. When I applied to colleges, I applied only to the U.S. service academies. I never considered DADT to be an issue because I didn't consider myself gay. The only time I had even heard of the policy was when an anonymous gay soldier was on an episode of The Real World.

After a few years at the Air Force Academy I came to terms with myself as a gay man and began an emotional journey during which I realized I was struggling under the DADT policy. I began to realize that it wasn’t as easy to hide your personal life in the military. I wouldn’t hang out with my Air Force friends because I was terrified that they would find out I was gay; I was isolated. I spent hours alone, depressed because I wanted to meet someone like me, gay, in the military. It wasn’t until my straight friends forced me to admit the hard time I was having that I came out to them.

To my surprise they were all supportive and even offered to take me to gay bars the following weekend to help me meet some gay friends. In my experience, most gay military members who choose to come out have had similar experiences. Friends have been supportive, apologetic for their past homophobic remarks, and sad that they have not known who their friend truly was.

After graduation I believed DADT wouldn’t be an issue anymore and that I would be able to keep my work and private lives completely separate. But after just a few months I found myself blackmailed by an instructor at a technical training course for my new job in the Air Force. When I finally put my own career at risk and reported the instructor, he turned around and outed me, and I was temporarily removed from my job; my ID card—as well as my access to government computers—taken away. DADT didn’t protect me or anyone else in my case. Instead, it helped foster criminal activity. A few days later, with the help of a lawyer, I was back at my job, but my career remained in question. The allegations against the instructor turned out to be true, and he was fired for harassing not only me but other students that ended up coming forward as well.

Frustrated and upset by my uncertain future in the military, I cofounded OutServe, an association of currently serving LGBT military-service members. Using secret Facebook groups and email listservs, we started connecting hundreds of service members to one another. This helped create social-support structures at military bases that never existed before. During the Pentagon’s study to repeal DADT our network proved crucial, as it served as the crux to the critical RAND Corporation study that showed important data on repealing DADT. Because of OutServe, RAND was able to use our networks to hand out surveys to gay and lesbian troops.

OutServe proved so helpful during the Pentagon’s study that I, along with others from OutServe, were invited to the presidential signing of the legislation to repeal DADT on Dec. 22, 2010. After the legislation was signed, OutServe continued to grow rapidly and launched new support services inside the military, including an LGBT publication for military personnel. Our first summit will be held in October and will provide an opportunity for American service members to network and talk to foreign military allies who already serve openly. The OutServe network now boasts more than 4,000 military personnel, including more than 400 deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. OutServe is creating social support for gay service members that never existed before. In places like Germany and Hawaii, service members get together for social events. Even in Afghanistan large contingents of gay service members meet and share coffee. Thanks to OutServe, gay military personnel are no longer quite as isolated as before.

Make no mistake about it: people have killed themselves because of this policy.

While building OutServe I have heard the stories of countless gay and lesbian service members serving under this policy. Over the past year I have been working on a personal project to help record this moment in history, allowing active-duty LGBT military members to share their stories and experiences under DADT in written form. It was one of the most reflective periods of my life, as these stories share the heartbreak, pain, and death this policy has caused. Make no mistake about it: people have killed themselves because of this policy. One story I often share about DADT is that of a soldier whose partner died from a roadside bomb while deployed. Without the ability to talk through his grief with another American soldier, he turned to a few Australian service members for emotional support. No soldier who fights for our freedoms deserves that type of abandonment.

For the past few months the military has provided training to its forces in anticipation of DADT’s repeal. No words can explain how it feels to sit in a room and listen to a PowerPoint presentation about how people should treat you once this policy changes. I don’t believe anyone needed training to learn “how to deal” with me; they just needed to meet me and realize I am no different from them. I share the same aspirations, the same dreams, and the same desires to have a family and succeed in life. On Sept. 20, when DADT officially ends, my integrity and the integrity of thousands of other gay and lesbian military members will begin to be restored. The years I lost lying to my friends, family, and co-workers will begin to be repaired. Like the lady I met at the wine store, on Sept. 20, America will realize the pain this policy caused to the very people that are fighting for their freedoms.