This past Monday at 7:30 a.m., Air Force officer JD Smith noticed on his work computer that training was about to begin. He was excited, and logged in right away for the online session.
It was the beginning of the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—but only, as it turns out, yet another beginning.
He clicked through slides for about 25 minutes, filled with “basic info that all people will be held to the same standards with repeal coming.” The overarching point: Everyone must maintain professional respect for military colleagues and harassment won’t be tolerated. Smith says the slides were simultaneously thrilling, with repeal looking like a reality; mundane like any HR computer course, and upsetting because he was essentially being trained in how limited his options will be.
The biggest “Ugh” moment for gays and lesbians reached by The Daily Beast who completed their training this week? That they can read how they will be treated equally and professionally, but still not dare say they are gay, or risk losing their careers.
For example, JD Smith is actually a pseudonym. It’s a name he has adopted as co-director of OutServe, an underground network of some 2,700 active-duty gay and lesbian service members (about 5 percent of the estimated 60,000 gays and lesbians currently serving). Of the five LGBT active-duty service members interviewed for this piece (four in the Air Force, one at West Point), all were afraid to have their full names or identifying details published. “I can’t give my real name yet, I’m so sorry,” says Smith.
“The training kept saying, ‘In the future you’ll be working with gay people.' Guess what? You are working with gay people.” —Air Force service member
The military-wide training (Smith posted examples of his training on the OutServe site ) signals the final death throes of DADT, and has commenced in all branches. “We'll do this quickly, we will do this responsibly,” Pentagon spokesperson Eileen Lainez tells The Daily Beast, adding that repeal may lead to some changes in policies while others—such as taking a neutral approach to sexual orientation, and not asking questions about it, will stay the same. The legislation that Congress passed in December repeals DADT 60 days after the president, secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all certify that DOD is ready to make this change. Force-wide training is an “essential component,” Lainez says, that includes “ slides, narration, vignettes and Q&A ” and could include mobile training teams. The training of as much of the 2.2-million strong force as possible is expected to wrap up over the summer months, says Lainez, and “does not have to be 100 percent complete” for certification to begin.
Some gay service members are already taking small steps toward coming out. In Smith’s hidden OutServe network (“you couldn’t find it if you tried”) 20 percent of those recently surveyed said the new law had led them to begin talks with more people in their military units. That can be both good and bad. Despite the lengthy training and certification process, it can be easy to think DADT has been lifted, and such a mistake has such potentially devastating career consequences that the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network warns on its site in red lettering:
“***SLDN WARNING TO SERVICE MEMBERS - DADT is STILL in EFFECT***
…Click here to contact SLDN's legal hotline and set up a free, confidential call with an attorney to discuss your options.”
For some, the training serves as both a morale boost and reminder of how far they have yet to go. Jennifer, who just returned home from a tour in Iraq and serves in the Air Force, completed her training last Saturday. “I’m glad to see they are talking about zero tolerance for discrimination. But they made it clear that because of the Defense of Marriage Act, we don’t have benefit rights and won’t be getting any.” A source at West Point, who also has not come out, says that, “When DADT is repealed it will be awesome, it will be life-changing. But the part of the training that’s so hard to swallow is how a same-sex partner of many years can be treated the same as a girlfriend or boyfriend of a few weeks. It just boils down to the fact that little will change until DOMA changes.”
SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis understands the need for training but raises two major objections: “First, the timeline is too long. The majority of the force may be trained and educated, but they are being sent two messages. One is that open service ‘looks like this’ the other is DADT is still the law and people can’t come out. It is…challenging.” Second, he adds, “we feel there should be a place for all service members with discrimination complaints to go outside of their chain of command, because their problems could be within their chain of command. We feel the proper place is Military Equal Opportunity.” (Complaints will go through existing procedures but not through the MEO office that handles issues involving race, color, sex, religion and national origin).
“The training says being gay can’t be used against us for our jobs or promotions. But we won’t have an outlet to say we’re being discriminated against the way women and minorities do,” says Jim, who serves in the Air Force in Idaho and took the training last Saturday. “If it’s going to happen—and we know it will—there will be nothing we can do about it.” (OutServe details the vignettes used in the training). “It was slightly disappointing, but it gave me an idea of how people outside my situation might have to change their views—not their religious views, but their professional behavior. It might have been better to have more case scenarios, this was mostly dryly going down a spreadsheet.”
James, also with the Air Force, has served in Iraq and is currently overseas. He says the training “ just reiterated that I’m a second-class citizen, that if I move, the government won’t pay for my partner to join me, and they kept referencing the DOMA even though Obama says he won’t defend it anymore. When they talked about medical readiness and HIV it made me think that all straight people who go through the training will think we all have it.” OutServe’s Smith agrees that “it’s pretty demeaning to service members to say they have to ‘train’ about health and HIV with repeal of DADT. Instead they should say ‘it’s a false stereotype, get it out of your head.’”
Jim, the man serving in Idaho, adds: “The training kept saying, ‘In the future you’ll be working with gay people.' Guess what? You are working with gay people.”
Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.