Sexuality in Service
Exploring the changes in military life two years after the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell
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When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, critics sounded the battle cry.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.”
Homosexuality’s Military History
The history of gays in the U.S. military goes back to the earliest days of our fighting force. In 1778, a Lieutenant in George Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge, Gotthold Frederick Enslin, was court-martialed—literally drummed out of camp with his coat turned inside out—for committing sodomy.
The issue has surfaced over the years. One incident almost ended the political career of future U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. He was assistant secretary of the Navy in 1919 when an investigation into homosexual relations between gay sailors and Newport, R.I. residents turned out badly, prompting FDR to be rebuked by Congress in what was sensationalized in the press as the “Newport Sex Scandal.”
Over the years, through many conflicts, gay soldiers served honorably, if quietly. At the onset of World War II, when psychiatric screening was introduced at induction, homosexuality was labeled a mental disorder and became cause for exclusion. But there were legal cracks in the armor—such was the case of Fannie Mae Clackum, an Air Force reservist who served in the late ’40s and early ’50s. She became the first person to challenge a military discharge on the grounds of homosexuality.
“As early as 1957, the military began looking into its homosexual exclusion policy,” author Nathanial Frank writes in Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. “That year, the secretary of the Navy appointed a panel to investigate the homosexual exclusion policy; the outcome, known as the Crittenden Report, found that homosexuals posed no greater security risk than heterosexuals.”
The Crittenden Report—not unlike the later Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy—attempted to have it both ways. While the report downplayed the security risks of allowing gays to serve, it also editorialized that “Homosexuality is wrong … evil … and it is to be branded as such.” The Navy wouldn’t release the internal study to the public for two decades.
In the early ’80’s, with the Christian Coalition and other right wing groups coloring the Reagan administration’s social policy, the Department of Defense directed that “homosexuality was incompatible with military service.”
When he ran for the presidency, candidate Bill Clinton had promised to end sexual discrimination in the military; President Bill Clinton found that to be a stickier proposition. What emerged from his administration after much mud wrestling with Congress and the Defense Department was a 1993 policy—the full name was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue and Don’t Harass—that stopped gay hazing but also barred people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces. Doing so, it read, would “create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” as it was eventually shortened, became the law for nearly 18 years. During that time, more than 13,000 servicemen were discharged for homosexuality.
Catching Up With The Times
“One of the problems I had was that I was serving in a position that someone else wanted,” says James Hermansen-Parker. “So they used my being gay against me.”
The former ship’s mate moved to Norfolk in 2001 while serving as a submarine nuclear machinist. The California native was discharged for being gay less than a year after returning home from Operation Iraqi Freedom and says that the real threat to the military came from the “witch hunts” that accompanied the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
“There were countless numbers of military intelligence people, like language specialists, people the military really needed, but they were tossed out for being gay. It makes no sense to me.” After his involuntary honorable discharge, Hermansen-Parker stayed in Hampton Roads and is currently the president of Hampton Roads Pride, one of the largest gay organizations in Virginia. The nurse at Sentara Norfolk hospital married his husband, Josh, in 2010.
“Who is any of us to judge what anyone else defines their love as,” he says. Major Steven Snyder-Hill avoided expulsion during DADT by hiding who he was. But he finally got angry enough to come out on ABC’s Primetime. The 24-year army reservist, who served honorably in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, was fighting in Iraq last year when he heard that many of the Republican presidential candidates were hinting that, if elected, they would repeal the repeal and go back to the policies of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“Somebody has to confront these people and ask them what they are going to do,” he remembers thinking. “It was going to affect a lot of lives.” His videotaped question to the candidates’ about their views on extending military benefits to gay spouses was met with boos from the conservative crowd.
The incident made Snyder-Hill the poster child for gay service people. “I’m probably the one person in the military who is out to everybody,” he says, calling from Columbus, Ohio, where he works as a nutritionist for the city’s public health department. “Because I came out during that debate, I don’t have any anonymity at all anywhere I go when it comes to the military.” Despite that, he says his fellow Army reservists seem fine with it. One of them made it a point to rub his hand and say, “Your gay isn’t going to come off on me.”
Like many, Snyder-Hill looked at DADT as a sign of progress at first. “We were actually allowed to be there, we just couldn’t tell everyone that we were there.” But he argues that the policy went against many of the U.S. military’s core values—like the idea of honor and the notion that one has to be honest with oneself and truthful and sincere in all actions. “They were asking us to lie,” he says. He used to have to hide personal photos in his home in case fellow soldiers should stop by.
“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.”