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Gay Soldiers in the Danger Zone

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As a gay veteran of the Armed Forces, I continue to have mixed emotions about the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy. While repealing the discriminatory policy was of course a step in the right direction, our military and political leaders failed to complete the journey, leaving gay and lesbian soldiers unprotected from anti-gay discrimination and abuse. The American military has a long history of nondiscrimination guidelines mandating that discrimination against certain protected classes not be tolerated. The military nondiscrimination guidelines help ensure fair and equal treatment for all soldiers and make clear that it is unlawful to discriminate against a fellow soldier on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

As momentum was building in 2010 for the repeal of DADT, Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim quoted Nancy Pelosi stating that the original terminology for the DADT repeal legislation in the House of Representatives included nondiscrimination clauses, but that it was removed to mollify the White House. Over a year has passed since the repeal of the DADT, and the integration of gay and lesbian soldiers is well underway, yet military leaders and President Obama continue to refuse to support the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class under military nondiscrimination policy.

In September 2011, right around the time DADT repeal was implemented, I attended a screening of the HBO documentary The Strange History of Don't Ask Don't Tell. During a question-and-answer session I asked Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN), about the need for nondiscrimination protections for gay and lesbian soldiers and referenced the fact that many activists want the president to issue an executive order mandating the inclusion of sexual orientation protections. Sarvis replied that SLDN had in fact called on President Obama to support the nondiscrimination protections for gay and lesbian soldiers, but that sadly the president "hasn't answered our call." And though Sarvis was generally pleased that there seemed to be little if any backlash against the repeal of DADT, he also predicted that there may be a few ugly bumps along the way to integration.

We may have just hit such a bump. A recent Huffington Post blog by A.J. Walkley reports on an incident in which a command sergeant major allegedly verbally and physically assaulted a lesbian officer at a military ball, simply because she was dancing with her girlfriend. The blog also alleged that the command sergeant major subsequently requested to "sweep this under the rug." If true, this incident seems like a brightly marked cautionary speed bump if I've ever seen one. And it begs the question: If the highest-ranking member of the enlisted ranks can assault an officer in front of 20 people simply because she is gay and then try to dissuade her from filing charges, then how many other cases of abuse against gay and lesbian soldiers are occurring that have been successfully hushed up? This incident speaks not only to the underlying and persistent problem of homophobia within the armed forces but to the fact that military leaders seem to continue to downplay and ignore the problem and, worse, make excuses for the perpetrators, which only serves to validate the continuing and urgent need for sexual orientation protections under military nondiscrimination guidelines. It is past time for President Obama to pick up the phone and answer the call on nondiscrimination. And he needs to pick up a pen and sign the executive order.