Post-DADT, Gay Troops Burst Out of the Shadows
It’s been less than a month since the final repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’ Tell," the law that forced gay and lesbian servicemembers into the closet starting in 1993. But already, the nation’s out, proud patriots are making their presence known--not in the sexual orgies and disciplinary meltdowns that foes of repeal predicted, but as a new wave of leaders.
On the political scene, the first openly gay man in the service to run for elected office, Brian Carroll, has stepped out of the shadows and stepped up as a candidate for the Colorado State House of Representatives, On Top Magazine reported in an Oct. 13 article.
"Carroll served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq with Army Special Forces Information Management, Special Operations Command," On Top Magazine noted. "He continues to serve in the Colorado National Guard."
"As far as I know I am the first out veteran and active national guardsman in the country to officially run for office since the repeal of ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ " the openly gay candidate stated.
Other openly gay and lesbian veterans have stood for public office, the article noted, citing MetroWeekly. Carroll is still in the military by way of his active status in the National Guard.
Carroll spoke with the Huffington Post about the empowerment that repealing the discriminatory law has provided to America’s gay finest.
"Ultimately, what this comes down to, I believe, is standing up and providing an opportunity for leadership," Carroll said, adding, "the repeal of ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ provides that opportunity--not only for myself, but for so many other openly gay members of the military.
"This really is a historic moment, and I think the people are going to look back at this, and say, ’This is history in the making. This is when the entire ballgame changed,’ " Carroll added.
The Huffington Post article noted that Carroll didn’t hide his true identity after signing up in the Army, even though under DADT he could have been tossed out of the Army. His comrades in arms were largely supportive, he said.
"I came across, in my military experience, [individuals] that were extremely supportive and completely open to the repeal of DADT, and there were others who were ultimately less open to those ideas," Carroll told the Huffington Post. "But really, by showing that sexuality in the military really is tertiary to the ultimate goal that we’re all striving for and we’re all aiming for--I think they really caught on to that."
If he wins, Carroll will be taking on a completely new battle: That of an American subjected to discriminatory treatment in other areas of legal and social life. One glaring injustice is the fact that Colorado is one of 30 states that has seen voters curtail the rights of gay and family families by approving an amendment to the state constitution making marriage a heterosexuals-only special right.
"It really saddens me to know that Colorado has in its constitution discriminatory practices," Carroll, a native son of the state, told the publication. "It just boggles the mind how that was allowed to happen.
"Colorado has always had a history of freedom and equality," Carroll added. "It was the very first state in the union to ultimately allow women to vote. Here we are nearly 150 years later, and we really have fallen by the wayside."
While individuals such as Carroll are sure to rise to positions of leadership, gay servicemembers as a group are also beginning to assert themselves. A group of young leaders at the nation’s sole private military college, Norwich University, has started up the school’s first GLBT club.
But leadership means venturing into new territory, sometimes in opposition to received wisdom. For Josh Fonatanez, who heads the new club, taking on that position as point man for a gay organization may have cost him another leadership role: He didn’t win re-election to the post of student body president, reported USA Today.
"No one wanted to step up and take the leadership role, just because of whatever type of stereotyping would come along with that, or judgment," Fonatanez told the newspaper. "Someone has to be the voice for a population of our student body, faculty and all members of our community who haven’t had a voice for a long time."
Two earlier attempts to create a GLBT student group at the university failed. But with DADT now a thing of the past, there was no longer any good reason to tell gay students that they could not have a club of their own.
The new student organization is a step forward in many ways, the faculty adviser suggested.
"The repressive policy which demanded that people lie about their own sense of identity precluded honest support for everyone," M.E. Kabay told USA Today. "It was not possible for them to continue in their military careers under those circumstances, so there was basically no support."
The university’s teachers and administrators are not homophobic, but there was some concern that the students might be. However, the young people at Norwich now have the chance to develop into mature and responsible adults who aren’t sidetracked by incidentals like a colleague’s sexuality.
It’s a form of maturity worth pursuing for the good of the nation as a whole, suggested another faculty member, history professor Rowly Brucken.
"If the military is going to protect us, it should be like us, and having this club which includes cadets really fights the stereotype of gays and lesbians as sort of weak cowards--invisible, not masculine," Brucken told the publication.
"It challenges those stereotypes by saying, ’Yes, you can be homosexual and be as skilled or unskilled in the military as anyone else,’ " Brucken continued.
For those who are actively serving, the end of DADT has meant the ability to drop pretense and stop holding others at arm’s length to deflect interest in their personal lives--the very antithesis of the breakdown in morale and cohesion that foes claimed they feared could be the result, despite the lack of any such apocalypse taking place in the militaries of America’s Western allies, all of which have long since set aside their own anti-gay bans.
The evidence of newfound bonds forming between bands of brothers and sisters in uniform? Openly gay troops are poised to take part in the OutServe Leadership Summit, taking place this weekend, the Associated Press reported on Oct. 14.
"There are issues of leadership and faith and family that are specific to our community and that by addressing, our folks can be better soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and better leaders," said Sue Fulton, who the AP noted was "a founding OutServe board member and the first openly gay West Point graduate to be appointed to the academy’s board."
"OutServe announced Thursday that an openly gay Department of Defense official, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson, would keynote the summit’s Saturday night dinner, which also will recognize a Minnesota couple," the AP article said, identifying the couple as "Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt, whose son was killed this year while serving in Afghanistan with an Army unit whose members knew he was gay."
"Nathaniel Frank, a historian whose 2009 book, "Unfriendly Fire," argued that banning gays from serving freely hurt U.S. military readiness, said that gay men and lesbians have formed secret social networks going as far back as World War I," the AP article reported. But that’s all changing now.
"’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ obviously required people who in many cases needed support, the support of each other and mutual assistance, to remain in the shadows even to one another," Frank told the media.
"So to have a conference like this, where people can step out of the shadows and come together to discuss the things that are important to being the best soldiers they can be, is historic and is essential and is one of the reasons so many people have been advocating for an end to a policy that requires you to hide."
Few expect the deeply ingrained hostility to gays that some cling to will evaporate all at once, and erasing the stereotypes of gays as weak and ineffective may also take time. But with the end of DADT, gay servicemembers are at last free to make their best case against such myths and stereotypes: They can finally be themselves.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.