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November 22, 2014

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With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal, gay soldiers come out of the shadows

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Leila Navidi

Standing Tall For the first time in 19 years of service, Major James Combs can finally talk about his sexuality without fear of expulsion, now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed.

Dave Jenkins received the news after the end of a double shift. It was already one of the worst nights of his career as a corpsman. A 2-week-old infant had died in his arms. He was finishing filing the necessary paperwork when his commanding officer approached him. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say …”

Jenkins was floored. On any other day, he might have immediately guessed what he was being charged with, but that night his mind was spent. All he could think about was how hard he had tried to save that tiny, little life in his arms—and how he had failed.

After his Miranda rights were read, Jenkins managed to squeak out one question, “What is this about?”

“You’re gay.”

It was 1993. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had just been signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. The policy, a messy compromise between Republicans and Democrats, was meant to clarify military standards on homosexuality by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual preference (don’t ask if that dude likes other dudes) while also barring openly gay men and women from serving (don’t tell anyone you are a dude who like dudes). At the time, some gays and lesbians believed the policy would translate into the military turning a blind eye to service members’ sexual preferences.

What Jenkins remembers is a witch hunt. He remembers someone standing across the street from the two gay bars in his town, taking photos of anyone entering or leaving. The photos could be submitted to commanding officers as “proof” of someone’s sexual preference and lead to an investigation that might end in dishonorable discharge.

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Dave Jenkins was the victim of much harassment and discrimination under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The practice made Jenkins paranoid.

“I always looked over my shoulder and walked back and forth to make sure nobody had followed me (into a gay bar),” he says. “When I walked out, I always made sure nobody was just standing there, looking out of place.”

What got Jenkins in the end wasn’t an incriminating photo or a sighting at the wrong bar. It was a fellow solider, who claimed that Jenkins had expressed a desire to give him a blow job, something Jenkins denies ever happened. When brought up for non-judicial punishment by the military, Jenkins lucked out. His accuser never appeared and the court was forced to dismiss.

For Jenkins, the relief was short-lived. He says his commanding officer approached him after the hearing, looked him straight in the eye and said, “I know you are gay, and I am not going to have faggots in my military.”

In that moment Jenkins realized he could no longer hide. So, before anyone could take him up on charges again, he sought medical retirement, which he received because he’d had cancer and multiple heart attacks while on active duty. Under that type of retirement nobody could take away the military benefits Jenkins had earned in his 12 years of service.

Not everyone is so lucky. Thousands of soldiers have been discharged under DADT, most receiving no benefits for their service, some after decades in the military. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network puts the number of troops discharged under the law at more than 14,000.

“I was angry,” Jenkins, a Las Vegas resident since 1994, says of his own retirement. “How could they do this to me? I put in all this time, all this effort. I busted my butt, and just because I fell in love with a man, they kicked me out?”

Two days after Jenkins left Hawaii, his boyfriend Mike, still an active duty serviceman, sent him a letter. It read: “I am sorry for not saying this before. I love you, and if you will have me, I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

Less than a year later, in what Jenkins describes as another witch hunt, a civilian firefighter accused Mike of attempting to rape him. Mike knew what he had to do. Following Jenkins’ lead, he received a medical discharge before he could be dishonorably discharged for being gay. Mike flew to the mainland to reunite with Jenkins, and the two have been together ever since. That’s 18 years—the same amount of time Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been used to kick gay and lesbian service members off their posts and out of the military. But on December 22, 2010, President Obama signed a law repealing the policy, following approval by Congress. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell officially ended on September 20, allowing gay and lesbian men and women to serve openly without fear of expulsion.

It’s a luxury pastor Pat Spearman never got to experience.

She entered the air force as an officer in 1977 and retired as a colonel, just shy of 30 years later. At first, motivated by religious teachings that the Bible condemned homosexuality, Spearman says she tried to deny her attraction to women. Only after rereading the Bible and interpreting its meanings for herself did she accept her own sexuality. Still, she knew she could not embrace it fully because of her military service.

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Pat Spearman, now a pastor, served in the Air Force for 30 years. Being gay in the military, she says, was never easy.

Instead of dwelling on the usual ups and downs of dating, Spearman worried that a spurned lover might be bitter enough to go to her commanding officer and ruin her career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she threw herself into work.

“I sabotaged every single relationship I was in,” Spearman admits. “I could never get serious because if I wound up getting stationed in Germany or Korea, she wouldn’t be able to go.”

As a pastor, troubled souls found their way to her. Some confided in her issues with their own sexuality. In the back of her mind, Spearman wondered if she had been specifically sought out. Did they know?

Time and again she heard heartbreaking stories, including one that still brings her to tears to this day: A civilian woman whose same-sex partner was fighting in Iraq post-9/11 had gone weeks without contact. When she called her partner’s company for an update, she couldn’t get any information because she wasn’t a legal family member. The woman found out later that her partner had fallen victim to a roadside bomb—by watching the news.

The fallen soldier’s family disapproved of the relationship and banned her girlfriend from attending the funeral. With no other option, the woman watched from behind a tree 50 feet away as her partner was buried. Once the family left the grave site, she sprinted to the grave to say her final goodbye as dirt was poured over the casket.

“It baffles me to hear people say, ‘We don’t want gay people in the service,’” says Spearman, now a pastor at Resurrection Faith Community Ministries in North Las Vegas. “We are already here. Some of us are giving our lives. There is something wrong with a policy that forces people to accept a dehumanized status while simultaneously accepting the fact that their next assignment could be a terminal one.”

Although the repeal won’t change her nearly three decades of lying to herself and others, Spearman says she feels at peace now. “Think of how many gay people are buried in Arlington. The way I see it, they can truly rest in peace now. Now, every part of them can be honored.”

Some estimates put the number of gays and lesbians currently serving in the military at 66,000, though there is no way of knowing for sure. Even with the repeal, few soldiers are planning on throwing an “I’m here, I’m queer” coming-out party.

Major James Combs is just relieved to not be pretending anymore.

Combs has been on active duty for 19 years and stationed at Nellis Air Force Base for the last two. When he first enlisted, he had not accepted the fact that he was gay. He even married a woman. It took him years to realize and embrace his sexuality, and by then, he loved his job in the military and wanted to make a career of it.

Combs decided to live by DADT. He says he never witnessed the witch hunts described by others, though someone once gave his bosses a photo of him hanging out on the Strip with a group of gay men on New Year’s Eve. The intent was obvious, but Combs’ bosses didn’t bite.

For him, the incident was embarrassing, if not career-damaging. With the repeal, he no longer has to worry about it happening again.

Most of all, though, Combs is looking forward to casual watercooler talk.

“You come into work on a Monday and someone asks what you did over the weekend. [Under DADT] I can’t say, ‘My partner and I went to see this great Cirque show.’ It has to be ‘a friend and I.’ Around the holidays people want to invite you to dinners and cocktail parties, and it’s customary to bring your spouse or significant other. I have never been able to go with a date, but now I am about to.”

Combs does not believe anyone will be surprised to find out about his sexuality. After all, there are only so many times you can mention “a friend” and so many years you can go without ever having a girlfriend before coworkers put two and two together. He adds that he’s been pleased with the mandatory anti-discrimination training given by the military in preparation for the repeal.

“I have already come out to a few people in the military that I trust, and the response has been, ‘Of course I knew. I was just waiting for you to tell me,’” Combs says. “When it comes to the day-to-day stuff, this will have a minimal impact. The sky isn’t going to fall at Nellis, but to the individuals, this is huge.”

It also means that if Combs is deployed to Afghanistan again, his partner will be able to say goodbye to him at the airport among the rest of his coworkers and their partners, instead of in the privacy of their home. That cultural validation goes a long way. But there’s still a ways to go.

While members of the military can be openly gay and marry in certain states, the government will not recognize their same-sex marriages as valid, even if the marriage was performed in a state where such unions are legal. This means dependent benefits like health insurance are still limited or inaccessible. To change that would require the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996. Many see DOMA as the final major hurdle toward equality for gays and lesbians.

“DADT and DOMA have been the primary focus of gay activists for a long time. With the repeal of DADT, activists can now focus all their energy on DOMA,” says Derek Washington, chairman of the Stonewall Democrats of Southern Nevada, a political group active in the repeal of DADT. “This is a major step in equality.”

Washington says he is proud of Nevada’s role in the repeal. Former Republican Senator John Ensign voted in favor of the repeal, after much grassroots pressure from groups like Stonewall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a big supporter from the start, publicly promising a repeal of the policy.

And it was in Las Vegas that Dan Choi, a lieutenant kicked out of the military after he came out publicly on MSNBC, gave Reid his West Point graduation ring with instructions to give it back once DADT was repealed. Reid returned the ring in December, on the day Obama signed the repeal.

In mid-October, Las Vegas will play host to the first-ever Armed Forces Leadership Summit, organized by OutServe, a network of active-duty military personnel. Around the same time, men and women will gather at gay resort Blue Moon for an unrelated event called Deployment Vegas, co-sponsored by Blue Moon, Piranha nightclub and Las Vegas Eagle bar. The social event was created three years ago by an active-duty serviceman unsatisfied with the lack of support available for gays and lesbians under DADT. With the repeal, volunteer organizers expect more attendees than in previous years.

“This is supposed to be a unifying event,” says Jenkins, the almost-discharged corpsman, who is volunteering his time at Deployment Vegas. He doesn’t mean just for gays and lesbians in the military, but for straight male and female supporters, who could not publicly address their coworkers or friends’ sexual orientation because of DADT.

Combs says it’s ironic that DADT was justified by the idea of “unit cohesion,” even while it forced individuals to lie day in and day out.

“We were prisoners of war while fighting for freedom,” Spearman says.

No longer.

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