10 Years After Don't Ask, Don't Tell Was Repealed, the Military Reckons with Past Discrimination

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2019 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month 2019 observance, Yokosuka, Japan.
Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka’s Multi-Cultural Committee hosted a 2019 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month observance, June 25, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Christina Johnson)

Iraq War veteran Shon Washington spent his career wracked by paranoia, sneaking to places far from his duty station to date men in the hopes that his fellow service members wouldn't see him.

Two other gay men with whom he served were discovered and swiftly kicked out of the military. Washington, whose service ran from 2004 to 2011, struggled with his own sexuality for a long time, dating a long-term girlfriend he considered proposing to throughout his initial year in the Navy.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, instituted by President Bill Clinton in 1993, appealed to Washington at first, he said, given that it gave him a chance to have a career in an institution where being gay was against the law. The policy was instituted as a compromise that barred military leaders and personnel from discriminating against or harassing gay and lesbian troops. But it also required those troops to keep their sexual orientation private.

As Washington reconciled with his sexuality, the policy effectively forced him to conceal his identity from most people with whom he worked.

"I had to be really careful," he told Military.com. "It was a little lonely."

Monday marks the 10th anniversary of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- a change that heralded a cultural shift within the military ranks to embrace diversity and different perspectives as a strength and to focus more on whether a person could perform their assigned duties based on ability rather than gender or sexual orientation.

Since the fall of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, all military occupational specialties, including ground combat jobs, have been open to women (2015), and transgender personnel have been allowed to serve under their preferred gender identity (2016 and 2021).

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On Sept. 20, 2011, after a contentious debate and passage of the bill that overturned the policy, the repeal was finally enacted. At the time, President Barack Obama said service members would "no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country."

In a statement released Monday, President Joe Biden, who as a U.S. senator supported allowing gay and lesbian troops to serve openly and as vice president advocated for the repeal, said the change was "the right thing to do."

"Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members," Biden said. "[It] showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."

A 2018 Defense Department survey of military personnel found that 2% of male service members and 7% of female service members identified as being gay or lesbian, while an additional 5% of men and 7% of women declined to answer the question.

But there is still a reckoning with past policies that forced service members out of the military for their sexual orientation, one that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are just beginning to undertake.

According to the White House, more than 100,000 service members have been discharged as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including 14,000 who were kicked out under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

With many of those service members receiving other-than-honorable discharges -- a designation that deprived them of an array of benefits -- the DoD encouraged service members to seek redress, and the VA announced Monday it plans to provide benefits for these veterans.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said there is "more work to do, particularly as it relates to righting old wrongs," and he encouraged service members to contact their service's Board for Correction of Military/Naval Records or Discharge Review Boards to have their cases reviewed.

"No veteran should bear a less-than-honorable discharge based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity," Austin said.

At the VA, claims adjudicators will begin searching for all discharged service members who were separated based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status and ensure that they have veteran status, according to Kayla Williams, the VA's assistant secretary for public affairs.

The designation will give them access to benefits that include VA medical care, disability compensation, vocational training, and education and home loans.

Under the new policies, discharges that were administered for poor performance reports that may be related to discrimination also will get a second look, Williams said.

While all veterans are able to appeal their other-than-honorable discharges, this new initiative would sidestep that lengthy and often unsuccessful claims process.

Personnel who received dishonorable discharges or have a criminal conviction that precludes them from attaining VA benefits will not be covered by the change.

Officials said the change would not require legislation to take effect, because the VA has broad authority to decide who is eligible for its services and benefits.

"Although VA recognizes that the trauma caused by the military's decades-long policy of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people cannot be undone in a few short months, the Biden administration and Secretary Denis McDonough are taking the steps necessary to begin addressing the pain that such policies have created," Williams said.

The move follows an initiative announced earlier this year that will let transgender veterans receive gender-related surgeries and medical treatment through the VA.

The initial legislation to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell was introduced by then-Rep. Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran to serve in the House of Representatives, a Democrat who later served as Under Secretary of the Army.

Murphy said Monday that the repeal of the "disastrous" policy was one of his proudest accomplishments as a lawmaker.

"When I saw over 13,000 of my brothers and sisters get thrown out after 9/11 when we needed folks to serve our country during a time of war -- get thrown out because of who they loved -- when I got the incredible opportunity to serve as representative of Pennsylvania's 8th District, I jumped at the chance [to repeal the policy]," Murphy said during a virtual presentation hosted by the Center for New American Security on Monday.

Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones attended Boston University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship; later, as an intelligence officer, she deployed to Iraq -- all under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. During a White House event Monday, she called the anniversary of the repeal a "BFD," since she is gay and signed up to serve knowing she would have to hide her "authentic self."

"The repeal communicated that people courageous enough to serve could now do so without living in fear. Repeal meant that their service as an LGBTQ member mattered as much as anyone else's," Ortiz Jones said during a virtual White House event.

Washington was able to serve and leave with an honorable discharge -- mainly by staying just one step ahead of the rumors, moving from base to base through natural career progression and leaving before too many people started asking questions.

He said he might have reenlisted if he'd known the repeal was coming.

"And not gonna lie, I was a little jealous the policy came after me [leaving]. I remember hearing about it on NPR during my drive home and feeling bitter," Washington said.

-- Patricia.Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@Monster.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenbeynon.

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