In 1996, when I began interviewing gays and lesbians in the American armed forces for the play and now film Don't Ask Don't Tell, I was stunned by the enormous gap felt and lived by this silenced community who, when joining the military, had sworn to protect and defend the United States Constitution.
Because so many gay and lesbian Americans do join the military for patriotic reasons, for "love of country," it has been especially painful to witness and record their enforced silence, the destruction of their careers, their courts-martial, humiliations and even imprisonment due to the discriminatory policy of an institution to which they would sacrifice their lives.
Now that President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have certified the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, it is a time for all Americans to celebrate. By electing a president and Congress who, on September 20, will allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, we have brought our country one step further in closing that gap between the ideal for which our Constitution stands and the reality of life lived in America.
When I met Justin Elzie, the first Marine expelled under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he asked in which branch of the military I had served. I told him I had never served, and he was shocked that I, as a civilian, would work to bring the stories of silenced military personnel to the surface. He thanked me profusely, but I insisted that it was I who owed him thanks for his service to our country. When servicemembers are surprised that civilians care about their issues, when they feel so isolated from the civilian world, and when we civilians feel so separate from the military community, our country is in a dangerous place. The military must not be separate from its society. The military is part of and controlled by our democratically elected government, and we must work to keep it so. The abolishment of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the full acceptance of gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, is key to maintaining that relationship.
We have brought our country one step closer towards being a true democracy, where the military bends to the will of the people. And whether or not we agree with how and when our military is used to implement our national policies, our country can only be stronger and more secure and more responsive to the people when it reflects the society it serves.
Marc Wolf is a writer and actor who spent three years interviewing hundreds of soldiers and veterans, male and female, gay and straight and transformed those conversations into powerful performances that explore every facet of this hot button issue in the new film, Don't Ask Don't Tell, which will debut timed to the historic repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell.