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Putting Sexual Identity Aside to Get Ahead in the Military

New America Media, Q&A, interview by Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen Posted: Nov 07, 2009

Editorís Note: In 1993, then-Pres. Bill Clinton enacted the Ďdonít ask, donít tellí policy, which officially permits gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they are not open about their sexuality. Now, Pres. Barack Obama has vowed to end that policy and remove any barriers to gays serving in the military. Many gay advocates have criticized Ďdonít ask, donít tellí as perpetuating discrimination, but for Catherine A.,(not her real name), an officer and 13-year member of the U.S military, the policy has made sense for gays and lesbians, like her, who put their military identity above any other. NAM editor Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen spoke with Catherine, 36, about why she believes Ďdonít ask, donít tellí actually helps protect gay and lesbian officers in the military. Her name has been changed at her request.

Did you know you were a lesbian when you started serving in the military?

Yes. But Iíve never been very vocal about my sexuality because I donít think it should be my master status. In the civilian sector, Iíve seen people removed from their jobs and harassed by colleagues at work because of their sexuality.

When you put the Ďdonít ask, donít tellí policy in its context, and you look at who makes up the Department of Defense, itís a progressive policy. Weíre not going to compare it to the GAP corporation, which is a private company, because this is an organization [funded by] taxpayers, and this is a very political issue. [There are many] benefits that are associated with being in the military that you want to afford to people, and you want to protect people from biased people, so they implemented Ďdonít ask, donít tellí.

Are you out to anyone in the military?

I am just out to people who are gay in the organization. We are part of the leadership group. They are all really talented people, and they know how to navigate their identities. They know when to say it, and they know when not to say it.

You have served in the military for the past 13 years. What has been your experience with the Ďdonít ask, donít tellí policy?

At one point in my career, I was a legal officer, and one piece of that billet was the investigation of people under the Ďdonít ask, donít tellí policy. We would conduct investigations, and if it came to light that someone came out to one of their peers or had questionable behavior, they would tell a senior enlisted, and that person, who is like a troop overseer, they would order an investigation. If based on the statements it was found that the person came out as gay, weíd have a discussion with that person, and if everyone agreed that this organization wasnít the best place for them because of this policy, then we would suggest that they finish out their term and then get discharged under honorable conditions. It would say they had gotten out early, but it wouldnít say why.

Or if it was a flagrant display, like someone bringing back people he picked up, then we would pursue separation because that would endanger the marine who might be gay, and it would make everyone feel uncomfortable.

Iíve had young people in front of me [who had come out] who say they want to do all these great things you can do in the military services, like traveling and going to language school, but I would encourage them to go other places. Because I personally felt that they were endangered on some level by other soldiers. If they got beaten up, then a whole slew of things would happen, and weíd be discharging people because of violence.

This one kid was a stellar service member on every account, but when they tell you [they are gay], you have to do something. Itís not the best position to be in. You have to either enact the policy, or you ignore it.

Did you ever feel torn when you conducted the investigations?

No, because the investigations revealed the circumstance of the event. Itís not like service people donít know the policy. When you are part of the identity of the military, you have to buy into it. Itís unfortunate, but I know so many people who put identities aside for the military. Putting identities aside is part of committing to the military. Certainly, if you pooled all the leadership, you would see there is a disproportionate amount of white folks in the officer core. If you are African American or Latina, or Filipino, you carry a certain identity with you. But if you are in this organization, you are a uniformed member first, and your tertiary identity is your language and culture.

Itís like you have to talk like a white person to get ahead in America. People bury identities all the time. Frankly, itís nobodyís business who you are sleeping with. But if itís getting in the way of the missionÖitís inappropriate.

If someone suspects a service member to be gay, but they have not acted improperly and have not come out to anyone, can they still be discharged?

This doesnít happen. The commander can say to the investigator, ďthis is not worth your time, this person has amazing recommendations.Ē Iíve never seen anyone pursued on suspicion. The investigations are based on peoplesí actions in the unit. The behavior was so out there that you would say, ďwhatĒ?

You actually have to raise your hand, or show some behavior that can be proven, and thatís what puts the separation vehicle in motion. If you happen to be effeminate, thatís not grounds for [being] removed.

What impact do you think this policy has had on gay and lesbian military service people?

The policy is helpful [when you] consider many things. First, military service members live in such close quarters, so regardless of whether you are a promiscuous individual, or you are sleeping with the same sex, all of these things make people feel uncomfortable.

And there is such a small percentage of queer people in the world, and there are so few people who have been exposed to it, that I donít want people to be picked on because of their sexual preference. Iíd much rather they be judged on their competency, and their ability for growth, and how well they do the job theyíve been trained to do.

So what the Department of Defense has done is made a reciprocal contract with an individual that says, Ďdonít tell us you are gay and weíll only judge you on the items on the evaluation piece.í And I think thatís a fair approach.

What do you think the effects of repealing Ďdonít ask, donít tellí would be?

Even if you repealed Ďdonít ask, donít tellí, you would still be hard pressed to find people who would bring their same-sex partner to the holiday party.

I think the effects, like any policy that gets changed, is that initially, there will be a small homophobic backlash. And then it would ease. Investigations into violence against gays and lesbians in the military would go up.

Personally, Iíd like it to be repealed, because I want the human condition to move forward, on a theoretical level. But when it plays out in front of you, it plays out much differently. I know people are discriminated against whether we are talking about military public service or public sector. Itís a good policy in that it protects an individual, and you canít verify either way whether a person is queer or not. The policy is really about [when] an individual is coming forward and saying, ďIím queerĒ.

Have you ever felt targeted or harmed by the policy?

No, Iíve never been hurt by the policy. Itís the people who donít know how to navigate those conversations who get themselves earmarked. Itís a matter of experience and exposure.

Given the level of sexual violence against women, both gay and straight, in the military, doesnít the policy really make gays bear the onus of not attracting violence?

The individual who commits the violence would certainly be punished. And thatís consistent.

If there are strong consequences for the perpetrator of homophobic violence, wouldnít that eliminate the need for Ďdonít ask, donít tellí?

That same argument can be applied to the civilian world. If there are severe consequences, shouldnít that be a deterrent for any crime of violence? There are still people in jail for violent acts. There is no way to police that.

Do you think asking gay people to stay closeted is like telling someone who is Jewish to not appear overtly Jewish in case it provoked anti-Semitic reactions?

I donít think thatís a fair question. There are Jewish holidays, but there are not national coming out holidays. Being gay is cross-cutting. Itís not like being Jewish or being a person of color. I honestly think a white person in a same-sex relationship has a lot more leverage than an African-American person from Oakland. Because you know how to navigate. You have capital. Race is big, you see it immediately.

A lot of the militaryís top brass are starting to say the time for Ďdon't ask, don't tellí is drawing to a close.

I think thatís totally accurate. Itís a foregone conclusion at this point, yet itís still around. The dominos are tipping. Obama said federal employers will be able to extend their benefits to same-sex partners and the Department of Defense is nestled within this, so it will tip like everything else did.

When it happens, I will commend the Department of Defense for doing it, because it will be the largest organization to do so, and there are plenty of people in the military who wouldnít want to see it go, and plenty people in the country who wouldnít want to see it happen. At the end of the day itís a social institution that will engineer itself towards progress.

Related Articles:

End ĎDonít Ask, Donít Tellí Now

The Triple Minority: Asian, Gay and HIV Positive

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