Sexuality in Service

Exploring the changes in military life two years after the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell



Sexuality issues in the military

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It was the lip lock felt ’round the world.

When the U.S.S. Oak Hill came home to Virginia Beach on Dec. 21, 2011 after a long deployment, Petty Officer 2nd class Marissa Gaeta kissed her girlfriend, Citlalic Snell, to commemorate the dock landing ship’s ceremonial first kiss. Gaeta, like many of the sailors on board, had purchased several $1 tickets in the Oak Hill’s raffle in order to compete for the opportunity.

The act was much publicized and discussed. It was the first time in the naval homecoming tradition that a gay serviceperson had done the honors and embraced a person of the same sex. With no advance hoopla or protests—the ship’s commanding officer, David Bauer, called it a “non-event”—this simple gesture was seen as a symbol that President Barack Obama’s then-recent signing of a repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, a controversial initiative that asked gay soldiers to keep their sexuality hidden, was being accepted by a majority within the ranks.

“We did have to hide it a lot in the beginning,” Snell, a 3rd class petty officer, told CBS News cameras about her two-year relationship with Gaeta. “A lot of people were not always supportive of it in the beginning, but we can finally be honest about who we are in our relationship, so I’m happy.”

When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, critics sounded the battle cry. “I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage.” Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said, while others claimed that the repeal would lead to massive resignations within the Armed Forces.

But, two years later, there has been no discernible damage, says Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California-Santa Barbara that studies issues of gender and sexuality in the military. “Contrary to the predictions of many people, DADT repeal had not had any negative overall impact on readiness or any of the component dimensions of readiness.”

As for the number of resignations, so far there would appear to be two.

The Palm Center recently convened a team from military universities such as West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy to study the immediate aftereffects of the policy change toward homosexuals.

“We looked under every rock for evidence that the repeal had caused a problem,” Belkin says. “We did surveys, we sent researchers to do field operations, we interviewed straight service members and gay service members, we personally contacted more than 500 retired generals and admirals who predicted that repeal would lead to disaster, we reached out to every single opponent of the repeal ... I mean we looked deep.” (The results of the research can be found online at palmcenter.org.)

While the military is, at this writing, navigating a serious sexual harassment scandal, it would appear to have nothing to do with homosexuality. For the most part, the once-heated issue of gays in the military has died down. “I get in front of the Marines as often as I can ... and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even get a question,” Marine commandant James F. Amos told the National Press Club last year. “I’m very pleased with how this turned out.”

All available statistics show that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is favored by the public; the military rank-and-file seem to have accepted it too. “Not so fast,” writes Elaine Donnolly, the president of the Center For Military Readiness, a think-tank that has criticized the repeal. “It will take years before the full meaning of Congress’ misguided vote for LGBT law will start to show up in civilian polls,” she says, citing a 2013 Military Times poll of subscribers that shows that, while opposition has shrunk, it still lingers. “The military polls are likely to show signs of problems first.”

But Belkin, at the Palm Center, dismisses that. His group found that hazing incidents have diminished, and troop cohesion has not been affected. Moreover, in 2008, 104 retired generals and admirals released a statement supporting a repeal. “As far as the rank and file is concerned, minds were already changed. The Pentagon found in its own research, in the year prior to DADT repeal, that about 70 percent of the military were already serving with gays in their units. And of those, more than 90 percent said that they were OK with it. This included combat soldiers, marines, submariners, pretty much every sector of the force.

“So this was a case of the rank and file being far ahead of the policy.”