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Miriam Ben-Shalom

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Why I Didn't Celebrate the Repeal of DADT

Posted: 10/03/11 01:10 AM ET

On Sept. 20, 2011, the end to a very draconian piece of legislation, the so-called Don't Ask, Don't Tell option for LGB service members, ended. The end of DADT means that for the first time, LGB military will not have to lie about or hide who they are in order to serve our country. As someone who fought military discrimination from 1974 to 1990 and was put out for telling the truth, not for misconduct, I do understand why there is joy in my community, but I am worried, as well.

It is a long step from the infamous, pre-World-War-II, blue-paper discharges for LGB military, which marked such people for denial of employment and demonizing. It is hard to say exactly how many people were granted undesirable discharges, but looking at later dates, it is apparent that thousands of people were discharged based on rumor, not fact. Even, some of the numbers in GAO studies are suspect.* There are known examples of instances, in the '60s and '70s, in which vile commanders ignored the fact that a service member was gay until they were close to retirement, and then discharged them to cheat them out of their military pension; Ted Switzer, a friend of mine, wrote to me about "a 90 year old veteran who was a pilot in WWII and a fighter pilot in Korea. He was discharged with a 'less then honorable' credential just two years short of retirement. He gets no benefits. The government owes him big..." There are known instances when a service member was subjected to deep questioning resembling terrorist interrogation, and to imposed "visits" to military psychologists or psychiatrists, rape (male and female), beatings and home visits by governmental agents posing as agents "looking for information related to national security" on other military people. I experienced this last event first-hand and told these so-called agents to get off my land or I'd shoot. There are also instances when gay service members were allowed to remain in service if they acted as quislings and betrayed other gays in their units, something I am familiar with and refused to do, as well.

Were there challenges to the military's policy of discrimination? Certainly. The grandfather of such challenges is Dr. Frank Kameny, who began his challenge in 1969 and has never given up the fight; Staff Sergeant Leonard Matlovitch; Copy Berg; Perry Watkins, who won an equitable estoppel case; and my case, which allowed me to become the very first person in U.S history to go back in and serve (although I later lost at the Supreme Court level).

One may hope that the end of DADT will allow patriotic Americans, who also happen to be gay, to serve openly and proudly. I stand amazed and proud that, in spite of the rotten and bigoted treatment to which many young military people have been subjected, so many wish to return to service. Also, that there are so many older soldiers, like me, who would gladly return to serve our country we love if we could. I am fearful, however, and I suspect that there won't be many military people, especially enlisted people, coming out of the closet. Why? Because one thing ending DADT has not addressed is what happens if harassment occurs. LGB military are not protected at this time, and there seems to be no way to deal with harassers, although the "poor soldier" who feels that it is against his or her morals to serve with an LGB person is going to have programs to help him or her serve -- perhaps, even, away from LGB people. (Oh, yes, these people are getting some protection and help, indeed. Really. One wonders about programs or protections for the soldier, marine, airman or sailor who has moral objections to serving with biased and bigoted people.) I am concerned because of the government's treatment of activists like Dan Choi and Mara Boyd, from whom the government is demanding repayment of money for schooling, etc., not to mention the Justice Department's heavy-handed dealings with Choi for protesting in front of the White House. Do we really think he should be fined $5,000 or be placed in jail for six months and have a criminal record for doing this?

So, Sept. 20, 2011, DADT ended. I did not celebrate, however; I never got a discharge when the Supreme Court declined to hear my case without prejudice. I was "released from the custody of the Army as an erroneous enlistment," and I can't come home yet. So I shall salute in private because I am so glad for those who can come home, as it were. I am joyful for those who may return to service, but I ache for those who have bad paper, for those who have no benefits, for those who were treated worse than the detainees at Gitmo, and I fear for those who will dare to come out. And so, amidst the celebrations, I hope my community will take time to remember those who came before and those who fought recently and lost. Remember, too, to remain watchful. Merely because something ends does not mean all will end well. Ask any of us who helped to make history about that.

Miriam Ben-Shalom's story is portrayed in the new film Don't Ask Don't Tell, starring Marc Wolf.