Sexuality in Service

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

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“It was progress in the sense that if you got thrown out for being gay, you could get an honorable discharge,” retired naval Captain Joan Darrah says of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It was great for getting the benefits deserved, she says, “but that’s not really progress.”

Darrah, who joined the Navy in 1973, had to be a trailblazer twice over. “I had some challenges as a woman,” she says, calling from her home in Alexandria. “I eventually became an intelligence officer, and when I joined, women couldn’t be intelligence officers. Two of my duty assignments, I was the first woman to hold the job. So I had all of those issues early on.”

She realized she was gay a few years after entering the service, she explains. But it only became uncomfortable when the issue became political. “Whenever the admiral would call me in to the office, a little voice in the back of my head would say, ‘I sure hope that he wants to talk about operational issues ... I sure hope I wasn’t outed.’ The number of soldiers discharged for being gay actually increased during the first years of DADT, from 617 in 1994 to 1,273 in 2001.  

“Clinton thought that this was moving us in the right direction,” Darrah says, “but in reality it codified the issue therefore it either had to be overturned in the courts or by congress. Though well-intended, it made things worse because it was harder to get rid of the policy. It was law.”

Currently, the captain and her married partner, Lynne Kennedy, are part of a damages suit that seeks to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which she claims is unnecessarily harsh to gays in the military because it denies benefits to gay spouses. It’s the “next hurdle” in the fight for equal rights, she says. Snyder-Hill and his husband, Joshua Snyder, are also a part of the suit. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue sometime this year.

“You have to think about how society has changed,” Darrah says. “It’s mind boggling how quickly in the last 10–15 years public opinion has changed when it comes to gay people. It’s almost impossible now for someone to say I don’t know a gay person or there’s not a gay person in my community.” She stops and lets out a hearty laugh. “I mean, the military has caught up with the times but the Boy Scouts haven’t?”

When Darrah first joined the Navy, she says, “I didn’t know anything about black people or working with black people. After I was in the Navy, I didn’t care if you were black, white, purple or green. We have a job to get done—show me your skills and off we go.” Times change because people change, she adds. “There’s always a fear of the unknown. It’s human nature.”

And after her service and all of her experiences, what did she think when she first saw the famous kiss on the U.S.S. Oak Hill?

“I grew up in New England, and I’m older, so I’ve never been too much on public displays of affection. Part of me cringed, and then I thought, ‘Ah, two young kids.’ And I was a part in helping that happen. Ultimately, you’ve got to leave this world better than you found it.”

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