Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Gay Soldiers Say Military Changes Are Easy

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JD is an officer in the Air Force, readying for his first deployment to Afghanistan. Because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, he doesn't disclose his sexual identity to his superiors, but most of his close friends -- even the straight ones -- know he is gay.

And he is not alone. JD helps direct OutServe, a LGBT group with about 400 service members who bond through a "hidden" social network not accessible to the public.

"It's a younger generation and we have gone through high school and are now in the military and we've already had to deal with it," said JD, who can't reveal his name or age or he will be discharged.

"I have lived most of my career completely open with most of my colleagues," said JD, who has served for six years. "I have roomed with straight men in close quarters. I have never had any issues."

He and other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members of the military don't see the hurdles that the Pentagon anticipates in repeal of the 17-year policy that bans gays from openly serving in the military.

This week the Obama Administration put the Clinton-era policy back on the books, just days after the Department of Defense told recruiters to accept openly gay candidates.

On Sept. 12, a 9th Circuit federal court judge had ordered an injunction

against enforcing the controversial policy. But the government pushed for a temporary stay, saying that Congress, not the courts, should repeal the law.

They say they want an orderly process to ensure new policies and cultural sensitivities are in place before the military undergoes its biggest change since women were welcomed to the military academies in 1976.

Questions of health benefits and other spousal perks, housing, as well as policies on sexual harassment, and even sensitivity training and support must be addressed.

And just yesterday, after a roller coaster of legal decisions, Defense Secretary William Gates limited "until further notice" any discharges under the policy to only five senior officials who must personally sign off on each case.

The issue will come up again before the lame duck session of Congress.

The Pentagon has been waiting for the Dec. 1 release of a " target="external">survey of 400,000 active and reserve service members who were polled on attitudes about morale and ability to fulfill a combat mission if gays are allowed to openly serve.

The 103-question survey quizzes troops on how they would react to sharing a shower with a gay or lesbian service member and whether they would be willing to bring their spouse to a military social function if they knew that someone who was openly gay would also attend.

Defense Secretary Gates has said, "I feel strongly this is an action that -- requires careful preparation, and a lot of training. It has enormous consequences for our troops."

But groups like OutServe, who advocate for lifting the ban, say attitudes are more tolerant since the policy was created during the Clinton administration in 1993, and the military has already adapted.

As far as JD is concerned, "No changes are needed right away," except notifying a same-sex partner if a solder dies in battle. "At least they should respect me if I die," he said.

"The most disappointing thing this week is we had people like [Robert] Gates call me an 'enormous consequence,'" he said. "That's a direct attack against those in service to have a direct leader say we are an enormous consequence."

LGBT advocates say there are parallels with the integration of African Americans in and women, who were serving in separate regiments.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order mandating equal treatment and opportunity. It also made it illegal under military law to make a racist remark.

Women's roles in the Armed Forces were expanded in 1973 after the end of the draft the establishment of all volunteer force.

The Pentagon says implementation of new policies on gays should be an orderly process after a full review.

"These are the same things we heard 17 years ago: It's such a complicated problem, a thorny set of issues, this is rocket science," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, an organization dedicated to research on issues of gender, sexuality and the military. "But this is a form of obstructionism."

Studies Recommend Lifting 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

A 1993 Rand Corporation study concluded that sexual orientation was not "germane" to who can serve and recommended establishing a standard of conduct that is enforced by leaders at every level of the chain of command.

"A single rule applies easily to everyone, there is strong leadership and everything else follows from that," said Belkin.

The study also reviewed militaries in now 26 countries that have already opened doors to gays. Canada, Britain and Australia said initial fears about morale and combat readiness proved to be unfounded.

But Elaine Donnelly, president for the Center for Military Readiness

, which promotes "sound military personnel policies in the armed forces," said the repeal will create chaos.

"No matter where you turn there are going to be problems the military doesn't need," said Donnelly. "The only thing beneficial about [the review], and even the secretary of defense said this, is to figure ways to mitigate the problems. Not once have they pointed to a single benefit for the military."

Her group opposes repeal, saying the 1993 law remains valid. They cite military living conditions with lack of privacy. Allowing gays to live openly presents an "unacceptable risk" to good order, discipline, morale and unit cohesion, which are essential for combat readiness.

Their research concludes separate housing would be impractical and expensive and "unacceptable" to LGBT activists.

Pretending that sexual tension does not matter would create a "hostile work environment, tantamount to forcing women to live in close quarters with men," says its position statement.

They also fear increased sexual misconduct and oppose any mandatory sensitivity training.

Donnelly also said lifting the ban would also put pressure on Congress to repeal the Definition of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Even the LGBT advocates say DOMA presents a problem for extending health benefits to same-sex partners who were married in states that permit gay marriage and in policies that use the word "spouse."

The Obama administration recently afforded health benefits to same-sex partners serving in the State Department.

Military policies that are less narrowly defined by the word "spouse," such as "family" or "dependents," may be more generous to same sex-couples.

"It's not fair and it's not ideal, but that is the law of the land and it's really not complicated," Donnelly said. A waiver of Congress would be required to override DOMA, say legal experts.

But Belkin said the courts might "skirt around some other minor benefits," such as notification of a designated person who might be a same-sex spouse in the case of death.

"This is an organization that is able to run airports and universities and wars and build computers and fighter planes," he said. "They should be so lucky to have this complicated a problem."

But there are still practical considerations such as authorizing same-sex spouses to use commissary shopping and support networks afforded their straight counterparts.

Just this year, the military set up protected categories for gay soldiers needing help with a psychotherapist or a doctor when mental health problems may be linked to sexual orientation.

"You used to have to choose between health care needs and the risk of being fired," said Aaron Tax of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).

"The military has a long history of adapting to change and prides itself on supporting service members," said Tax.

As for issues of sexual misconduct, most can be resolved under the existing military code of conduct, according to the group.

Sexual harassment should also be a non-issue with the existing military code of conduct, says SLDN's executive director Aubrey Sarvis.

"It's neutral with respect to gender and sexual orientation," he said.

"The military has a pretty good history and tradition of treating all service members the same way," he said. "Whether you are straight or gay, if there is improper behavior today between a male and female, it's the same as if it's improper behavior between two members of the same sex. They are treated the same way."

As for worries about gays and lesbians sharing housing with straight service member, "that's offensive," said Sarvis, who spent three years in the Army infantry in the 1960s and who is gay. "Of course they should."

"The reality is in some combat zones and in some circumstances, men and women do share some latrines and showers and it hasn't been a major problem," he said.

He said the key component to any major culture shift is education and training.

"And that begins at the top, particularly in a large organization like the military with one million plus," said Sarvis. "It trickles down from the officers of the corps?all the way to the ranks."

"Rules are rules and the law is the law," he said. "It doesn't matter if you are gay or straight, male or female."

Gay and lesbian service members or those interested in signing up to serve and have questions may contact the SLDN hotline to speak with a staff attorney at 202-328-3244, ext. 100 or go online toServicemembers Legal Defense Network.

For more information on the efforts by the Center for Military Readiness, go to Flags & Generals for the Military and Military Culture Coalition.