When the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” occurred, the radical claims that gays and lesbians would dress in drag and show up to work with Lady Gaga blasting on a boombox were rampant. While that might have been entertaining to see, for most of us currently serving in the military, the most interesting thing that occurred the day DADT died was we ran out of coffee. Which was a close tie with my boot becoming untied at some point during the day.
It wasn’t “business as usual” though, as many gay advocates proclaimed. It was better. I would argue that the U.S. military is rapidly becoming one of the most accepting job opportunities for gay citizens in America, outpacing most private-sector industries and even other nations. In Britain, the policy has been changed a decade, but not one Royal Marine has come out of the closet publicly. Here in America, on Day 1, more than 100 military members came out publicly in OutServe Magazine, from all branches of our military.
That’s not to say the military has the right policies to help gay servicemembers or that there is no anti-gay bias in our military. Gay servicemembers receive no legal recognition for their families and have no access to equal-opportunity reporting procedures. The very minimal resistance to open service that exists in the military is from the servicemembers and military leaders who have never had the chance to interact with a gay person.
That’s why we must come out.
I’ve been told many times that someone didn’t want to come out as gay in the military because “they didn’t want to distract from the job.” That very mentality shows the anti-gay stigma that remains in the military. Being gay in the military should be no different than hair color, religion or race. To hide behind excuses of “wanting a private life” — can you imagine a straight married soldier using this excuse to hide their spouse? — is to give in to the very people who have discriminated against gays over the years. For decades we were told we could not be part of an effective military; that we molest children, are deviant beings and have no sense of moral compass. That’s why we must have these conversations. The only way to change that culture is to start the dialogue with our straight counterparts.
Even if gay troops face a negative reaction coming out, a dialogue has started. That dialogue, positive or negative, is the start of the process to break down the walls of discrimination. The myths against gays serving can be dispelled only by those who are gay military leaders, those who are visible. There are thousands of gay youth who want to serve their country, and they will look to gay servicemembers as heroes and role models. We must not pretend we have to be invisible to be effective. If we are invisible, then leaders have no reason to continue to change policy to benefit our families. The more we are out, the more we can be role models and leaders. The more we are out, the more our commanders and other military leaders see how this inequality is affecting us, and affecting military readiness.
There are many policies that could be extended now to gay servicemembers and their families. That includes issuing ID cards to allow same-sex partners the ability to pick up their children from the day care on base, or use the base commissary. It includes giving us access to equal-opportunity reporting. But military leaders have to know we exist and see that inequality and how that affects us. The military’s foundation is built on treating each other equally, and if our leaders do not know who we are they cannot see the effects of these unjust laws.
This is particularly important for higher-ranking officials who have chosen to not come out. Younger gay troops are hopeful that they can reach the very highest of the military chain of command; but they don’t yet see their lives reflected in those who are already there. This, too, is an issue of leadership and role modeling.
We must understand that this movement is much larger than any of us currently serving. When President Barack Obama came out for marriage equality, he stated as one of the most compelling reasons to support marriage equality the fact that gay servicemembers could die for their country, but not get married. When America sees open gay and lesbian servicemembers fighting for their country, it pushes the whole movement forward.
Not many people have heard of the story of Jackie Robinson before he ever made a name for himself as the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era. In the 1940s Robinson was accepted in the Officer Candidate School and commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army. While stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, he boarded a U.S. Army bus, where he was instructed to sit in the back. Even though the Army had desegregated its own buses, Robinson was being instructed to move to the back. He refused, and was court-martialed as a result. The charges even included “public drunkenness,” though Robinson never drank.
Make no mistake about it, these laws and regulations are unjust. They serve no purpose but to institutionalize the notion that some soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are unequal to their counterparts. But there is no hope they will change unless we come out.
Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried is co-director of OutServe, an advocacy group of previously closeted gay troops.