The Secretary of the Air Force recently said she supports lifting the ban on transgender service members, a departure from the current military policy that involuntarily separates those that reveal they identify as transgender. This got me thinking about how I, and many others, had a front row seat to the evolution of policy that eventually allowed gay and lesbians to serve openly. Shouldn't we examine those experiences and apply them to the current debate on how we treat transgender service members? These are some of my own experiences.
In 1994, I sat in the recruiter's office filling out paperwork to join the military. The Clinton Administration had recently implemented the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy allowing homosexuals to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexuality secret. As a heterosexual, the policy didn't impact me directly, but I still remember feeling that it was fundamentally wrong to tell someone that they could take a bullet for their country but not serve in an open and honest way.
The form I was completing still had a section titled "sexuality" that my recruiter lined out. I was curious, so I asked him what he thought of the new policy. He replied "it doesn't really change anything. Gays are already serving, they just don't have to lie about it on this form anymore."
During my first tour, I remember hearing about a local case that received national attention. A Navy Senior Chief, with 17 years of service, was being discharged because he had an AOL account that identified him as gay. For those who aren't familiar with military rank structure, a Senior Chief is an E8, a rank you would never make without being a top performer. I couldn't believe that the military was going to discharge someone who had been so successful, simply because he identified himself as gay on a personal email account.
I still vividly remember many of my peers talking about this case and making some pretty bigoted remarks. As a young man in my early 20s, I wasn't yet comfortable enough in my own skin to defend that Senior Chief, and to this day, I consider my hesitance to speak up a moral failure. I should have displayed the moral courage I was taught in the military and stood up for him and his right to serve his country. He eventually went on to make E9, the highest rank an enlisted member can achieve, and was allowed to retire with full benefits. The fact that it wasn't on his own terms bothers me to this day.
During my time as a drill sergeant in boot camp, one of my best recruits was a lesbian, although I didn't know that initially. She was a natural leader and earned herself a leadership position in the division. One afternoon, a group of recruits came to my office and said they had a violation to report. While everyone was sharing family photos, they explained, my recruit had shared a picture of her fiancé - who happened to be another woman.
As with any potential legal issue, I sent her to our legal department. Thankfully, since she had not yet received training on the DADT policy, they simply had her sign a form acknowledging the policy and sent her back to training. She went on to graduate boot camp with top honors.
Many years later, while serving in a command leadership position, DADT was repealed. I participated in a training session with numerous other unit leaders. The training was designed to educate us on the new policy and how to implement it. During the training, one of the unit commanders was noticeably hostile to the idea of gay and lesbians serving openly. He went on and on about how his unit would be negatively impacted. The instructor let him rant for a little bit and then said, "Do you have a successful unit?" The unit commander replied, "Yes I do." The instructor said "I hate to break it to you, but you have gay and lesbian service members serving in your unit right now and I guarantee you that your other service members know who they are and really don't care."
His point was that the DADT repeal changed only one thing; honorably serving gay and lesbian service members didn't have to lie about who they were any longer. Their loved ones could now share in the pride of their service by attending things like awards ceremonies and command holiday parties; and finally, they'd be entitled to receive a flag and message of gratitude from the nation if their loved one died in combat. It's so silly to me that this took so long to happen.
I could share many more stories about gay and lesbian service members serving honorably in the shadows. The same arguments made against race integration in the 1940's and DADT repeal recently are being used to keep transgender service members from serving openly. History has proven those arguments wrong. No one honorably serving their country should have to lie about who they are in order to continue to serve - we're better than that! If they are allowed to die for our country, they must be allowed to live as themselves.
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