January 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Service members torn over coming out

For one gay Air Force pilot, it remains business as usual as he keeps his sexual orientation a secret despite passage of legislation allowing for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The Charleston, S.C., resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he considers himself a private individual and sees no need to make public to his Air Force comrades his gay identity.

“It’s just not my style,” he said. “So, no, I’m probably not going to say anything. If somebody asks me, I might say, ‘Well, if you’re asking the question, then you probably already know the answer to it, so I’ll leave it at that.'”

The pilot said he sees no need to take a date to squadron picnic as straight airmen might bring their spouses.

“As far I can tell, nobody suspects that I’m gay at work, other than I’m single,” the pilot said. “We’re a bunch a pilots, so sometimes it’s not easy for relationships, so a lot of guys that are even older than I am have never been married, so it’s not uncommon. I don’t stand out being in my early 30s and single.”

The pilot’s decision to keep his sexual orientation a secret represents one option for gay service members now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is on its way out the door.

On Dec. 22, President Obama signed into law legislation allowing for repeal of the military’s gay ban, bringing to a close a long struggle to repeal the 17-year-old law.

Following the signing of the legislation, some service members say they intend to make no changes in how they interact with their military colleagues, others plan to make their sexual orientation public, while others say they’re already out to others in their unit.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he thinks the service members will respond to the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the variety of ways that civilian gays and lesbians handle their sexual orientation.

“I largely think it’ll reflect civilian society,” Nicholson said. “Some people will make that personal judgment to not come out, some people will decide to come out for the first time.”

But for the most part, Nicholson said he thinks the end of the military’s gay ban will “in all likelihood be a boring event” that won’t change things for gay service members.

“Some people are already out, and that will continue,” Nicholson said. “Others are not out, and it’s not necessarily because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ that they’re not out because of personal choice or environmental judgments.”

Nicholson predicted that a “small minority” of gay service members will come out to make a statement about their sexual orientation.

“In the rest of the gay community, you see some people who subscribe to the philosophy it’s important to be out to get people more accustomed with gays and lesbians,” Nicholson said. “And I think you’ll see that reflected in a certain group of the military as well.”

One Navy corpsman who spoke to the Blade said he expects no changes after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because he’s already out to the majority of his colleagues in his unit.

“I’ve also never straight-up told people, but a lot of people have met people that I’ve dated or people have come out to a bar with me or just with my friends,” he said.

The corpsman, a D.C. resident, said he hasn’t been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” even though he’s out to many of his colleagues because “it was never an issue.”

“You’re carrying yourself in a certain way wearing the uniform and whatever you do outside of work has nothing to do with your job performance,” he said. “I feel like I performed to where anything I did in my off time shouldn’t bother anybody.”

Meanwhile, in Southern Maryland, a Marine Corps sergeant who’s not out to his unit said he intends to make his sexual orientation public after repeal has been in effect for a while.

“In the military life, I don’t see right now as the time to jump out of the closet until after everything goes through and they do all the sensitivity training,” he said. “Probably within a couple years, I’ll probably slowly start just coming out.”

But delaying his coming out process doesn’t mean the sergeant is indifferent to passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation. When Obama signed repeal, he said his reaction was to “have a couple bottles of Champagne.”

“I was ecstatic about it,” he said. “It came a lot faster than I thought it was going to come because I didn’t see it coming before Congress let out.”

The sergeant said he wants to wait before making any declarations about his sexual orientation because he wants senior military leadership that may be uncomfortable with gays to retire first.

“I want to see a lot of more them retire and get out of the picture and a lot more of my peers and my generation move up into their spots,” the sergeant said. “The others from my age range, from what I see, are a lot more accepting of it.”

The sergeant said younger Marines went to school “with five, six, seven, 10 people in their graduating class who were openly gay” — an experience not shared by senior leadership.

Among the strongest opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal prior to Obama’s signing of the legislation was Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who said an end to the military’s gay ban could be a distraction that could “cost Marines’ lives.”

Still, after the law was signed, the commandant issued guidance stating that the Marine Corps will lead the way in implementing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

The sergeant said he doesn’t share Amos’ earlier concerns that open service in the military would be a problem and predicted that Marines would still be able to work as a team.

“That person still wants to survive just as much as I want to survive and go home to mom’s home cooking with apple pie,” he said.

As others make plans to come out at a future time, some service members who were previously closeted are reportedly already making headway in the coming out process in the short time since Obama signed repeal.

The co-director of OutServe, a global network of LGBT service members, who goes by the alias J.D. Smith to avoid being outed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said he’s already seeing an “interesting trend” of gay service members starting to come out to their families and others with whom they’re close.

“I think the process is people are coming out to people in their units,” Smith said. “People are coming out to their close friends that they trust because they know that it’s about to happen, so I think the coming out process in general has begun even with the law still in effect.”

Smith said he knows gay service members who for the first time brought home their significant others over the holidays to introduce them to their families as a result of Obama signing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Even though the president has signed the legislation, repeal has yet to take effect and gay service members could still be ousted under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for some time.

Open service will only happen after the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that that U.S. military is ready for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

The law provides no timeline for when this certification must take place, but Obama said in a recent interview that he foresees it happening in the course of “months, not years.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to implement training for service members before going forward with allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Gates hasn’t given a specific timeline for how long the process would take, but has told reporters he wants to move in a “matter of weeks” through the early stages of the process.

Further, after certification takes place, a 60-day waiting period for congressional review must pass before gays can serve openly in the military without fear of discharge.

Although an implementation date remains uncertain, gay service members are expressing confidence that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will soon be off the books.

The naval corpsman said he’s confident that repeal of the military’s gay ban will become final, but said he still anticipates that the end may take between six months and a year.

“You can’t expect for something like night to day,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time for all these things to go through and for people to be accepting of it.”

The Air Force pilot said he thinks repeal will be implemented this year because he believes Gates and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen want open service to happen on their watches.

“They don’t want to drag it out forever,” the pilot said. “I’m thinking that probably by the end of September, it’ll be all said and done. That’s my personal opinion just based on what I heard about how it’s going to take to do the different training at different levels.”

Nicholson said the perception that open service will come to the military soon is widely shared among gay troops and that the people who are “raising the alarm bells” tend to come from outside the military.

“The tone is celebratory and one of relief,” Nicholson said. “I think a lot of people that I’ve talked to and that have proactively talked to me about it seem to think it’s inevitable, it’s just a matter of time.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • It is a relief to not worry about being kicked out regardless of if you chose to “come out” or not.

  • OF COURSE, “it’s just a matter of time.” That’s NOT the point which is whether that time is too long. As you reported earlier, no less than DADT expert and Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin has said that “It shouldn’t be a long process because the Pentagon ALREADY ESTABLISHED A POLICY TO ALLOW GAYS TO SERVE OPENLY in the military when [in the LCR case] a California federal court in October issued an injunction that temporarily enjoined enforcement of the law. ‘Although they haven’t acknowledged this in public, THE REPLACEMENT REGULATIONS HAVE ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN, and so the Pentagon could easily repeal the ban TODAY if there was the political will’.” Emphasis mine.

    A recent Palm Center study also documents that training does NOT need to happen before open service. Compare both of those facts with what SECDEF Gates—who’s already delayed an end to the ban for two years—has said, that he will NOT “certify” “until the Service Chiefs are comfortable that the risks to unit cohesion and combat effectiveness of a change have been addressed to their satisfaction and to my satisfaction”? In other words, he’s contradicting the results of his own homophobic study: the majority of troops said they’d be fine NOW with open service.

    While eventually he’ll run out of excuses, in the interim, that some self-annointed gay experts are continuing to be collaborationists with him because their backbones of self-respect are not yet fully developed is repulsive. Get off your knees, boys!

  • IMHO I think being out is the most important thing gay people can do. when people discover that those they know and respect are gay, those str8 people are innoculated against the hatred spewing from some churches.

    Perhaps the big issue is the “know and respect” should come first. As a gay man told me how he came out at work – “If I walked in and told everyone the truth, I might have been run out of the place. Instead I waited a year.

    When I came out, the asshole homophobe was run out of the place.

    BTW – I did something similar to that even though I am str8. Worked at circuit city as a retirement job for 7 yrs till they died. I was the totally out in supporting gay people, even though there was only perhaps one gay person in the store.

    But I was also the one with the car license plate “IMPEACH”., or course referring to that idiot jesus freak Bush JR.

    The store homophobe who had been there for 9 years suddently stopped coming in on time, sometimes didn’t show at all. They canned his ass.

    He went over to Best Buy (surper good, even recruit employees at gay pride event0, and got his ass fired, only can guess why – that he ran into a bunch of gay kids, workign theire – its obvious on most of them.

    And the anxieties induced by his homophobic church got to him, he couldn’t stand to see bush the hater demeaned, you can guess most of the rest.

    the other piece – he was basically a decent, though certainly not too brilliant guy. His life is being ruined by his church.

    Everyone is the victim of religious bigorty.

  • I’ve been retired since 1997. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to be totally out. There is still a bias in the general public about being gay. I would have loved to serve as an openly gay man. I would also love to live my life now as an openly gay man. I’m not conviced that it is religious bigotry or not, but I know that my being closeted can be traced to the ‘nuture’ of my life.

  • Ok.. once again I see the mention of ‘congressional review’ I’ve seen this in articles here and there, but I don’t see any mention of it in the original documents.. when did a congressional review become part of the 60 day waiting period? someone show me where it’s documented.

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