by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The U.S. military officially reversed its policy on Gays serving openly in the service six months ago. Leading up to the historic moment, right-wing politicians (particularly U.S. Navy veteran and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain) played the role of doomsayer - if DADT were repealed, it would cost the lives of Marines in battle, they said. While most Gay veterans (like myself) shrugged this off as typical political grandstanding, McCain and company's words did frighten more than a handful of Americans who hoped against hope that everything would be OK. Six months later we have our answer. According to top Pentagon officials and the Department of Defense-directed Stars and Stripes newspaper, DADT's repeal has been a non-issue. Everything is, in fact, OK.
In a March 19 report filed by Leo Shane III for Stars and Stripes, Sgt. Pepe Johnson was surprised by the reaction he received when his fellow soldiers learned that he is Gay.
'They've pretty much shrugged it off,' said Johnson, who rejoined the Army last fall after nearly a decade away. 'Most of them were wondering why I had a nine-year gap in service. When I told them it was because of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' they shrugged it off. That was a pleasant surprise.'
Johnson was discharged from the Army in 2003 under DADT. After he shared his 'secret' with some friends, others in his unit started grilling them about his sexual orientation. Feeling pressure from both his friends and others, Johnson eventually came clean to his superiors.
As the political winds changed last year, Johnson said he was speaking with recruiters about returning even before the repeal went into effect last September.
'Their biggest issue was asking when I could start, not worrying about my personal life,' he said. 'There has been no backlash, nothing to worry about.'
Pentagon officials say that Johnson is not alone. Across all four branches of the military, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, have come out as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual to little or no fanfare, and others - like Johnson - have returned to military duty. Officials say the policy change has caused 'no major headaches.'
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told Stars and Stripes the repeal is 'proceeding smoothly across the Department of Defense,' which officials there credit to the 'enforcement of standards by our military leaders' and 'servicemembers' adherence to core values that include discipline and respect.'
Military leaders have seen pushback from conservative groups on some high-profile post-repeal stories - such as a picture of a Gay Marine kissing his boyfriend which circulated earlier this month - but haven't faced any lawsuits or mass resignations predicted by some opponents.
'Last month's White House dinner honoring Iraq War veterans included several same-sex couples among the invitees, but in their remarks military leaders didn't even note that such a public display would have resulted in those troops' dismissal just a few months earlier,' wrote Shane.
Still, even with Pentagon officials disagreeing with them, DADT repeal opponents remain skeptical. Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, said plenty of troops remain opposed to serving with openly Gay colleagues, but fear they'll lose their job2 if they object to the military's new so-called pro-Gay agenda.
'The entire administration & has imposed 'zero tolerance' policies against persons who are not enthusiastic supporters of LGBT law,' she said. 'This is what we predicted, but the effects will not be seen quickly, especially in an election year.'
Much of the repeal fight has shifted to the next rights battlefield: whether same-sex couples should receive the same housing and medical benefits as their straight peers.
'Even as we celebrate the success we have seen so far on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal, we know that implementation cannot be entirely successful as long as we have two classes of service members. It's past time for the Secretary of Defense to act on this front, and at this six-month mark, it would be entirely appropriate to do so. The reality is that the Department of Defense started looking at benefits long before repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' took place, including in the findings of the Comprehensive Review Working Group,' said Army veteran and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis.
Benefits the Secretary of Defense has the ability to confer without coming into conflict with the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or other federal statutes include military ID cards, hospital visitation, family housing, joint duty assignments, and a variety of morale, welfare, and recreational programs. SLDN first called on Panetta in August 2011 to extend these benefits and reiterated that call in January 2012.
In addition, SLDN and the law firm Chadbourne & Parke have filed landmark litigation representing eight married Gay and Lesbian service members and veterans. McLaughlin v. U.S., filed in October 2011, challenges DOMA and other federal statutes that preclude the military from providing equal recognition, support, and benefits to all families. Currently, there is a 60-day stay in the case that expires on April 28, 2012.
'These plaintiffs take the same risks, make the same sacrifices, and provide the same service, yet when it comes to benefits like housing, health care, survivor benefits, and family support, they are not treated the same as their straight married peers. It's time to repeal DOMA and change these discriminatory laws. We cannot be a nation with two classes of service members,' said Sarvis.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jeremy Johnson, a member of the active-duty Gay-rights group OutServe, told Stars and Stripes he anticipates more problems in the future, although nothing to the extent of Donnelly's predictions. Many of the Gay troops he knows have not yet talked about their personal lives with their work colleagues, somewhat delaying the cultural impact of the repeal.
'This was never about having people come flying out of the closet,' he said. 'It was about knowing you can't be fired for being found out. There's going to be a natural transition as more people become comfortable with the idea.'
Johnson, who was forced from the military in 2007, became the first openly Gay person to re-enlist after the repeal was finalized. He said his commanders have warned him that he could be singled out for his public role, but so far it hasn't caused any real conflicts.
'I anticipate that this isn't over, but I don't anticipate major problems, either,' he said.
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