By Jennifer Mattson, TRADOCJanuary 11, 2012
FORT BLISS, Texas (Jan. 11, 2012) -- Many "out" gay and lesbian Soldiers say they haven't noticed much change in Army culture since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" Sept. 20, and many still remain in the closet to those they serve with.
For most, it has been a relief that they can no longer be prosecuted or their Army careers jeopardized for being gay.
"There hasn't been a noticeable change except for those of us in the gay community," said Staff Sgt. Ian Terry, a gay Noncommissioned Officer. "We're a little more comfortable, a little more at ease and just kind of breathing a collective sigh of relief at not feeling the need to be somebody we aren't."
THE SMA'S CHARGE
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III said Noncommissioned Officers, or NCOs, are always responsible for enforcing standards and discipline.
But with the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, NCOs have to lead by example and respect their fellow Soldiers, regardless of sexual orientation.
"The repeal and the acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people within the formation will be a shift in the culture of the Amy," Chandler said. "The Army has said that, with this change, sexual orientation does not matter. It's not something that we're interested in."
"We're interested in accomplishing the mission," Chandler explained. "We're interested in having a diverse Army, and we're interested in having people who are interested in serving, who meet the standards to serve, be allowed to serve. Those are things that NCOs are going to have to understand and be open to."
NCOs not only have to understand the new regulations that are in effect after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," they also have to guide their Soldiers toward that same understanding.
"As sergeant major of the Army, I'm expecting them to do two things with the repeal," Chandler said. "I'm expecting them to lead their formation, whether that's a team, squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade. I'm expecting them to be a leader, and that means you have to be engaged with your Soldiers. The next thing I'm expecting them to do is to enforce discipline and standards, which applies to the standards of conduct, the behaviors that are acceptable in our Army."
With the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," NCOs will have the mission of being the leaders on the ground who will have to work with their Soldiers and respect their differences, Chandler said.
"I expect NCOs to be leaders, to take charge and to be engaged with their Soldiers to understand that we expect to have a diverse Army, people from all different walks of life, with all different faiths, and with all different ideas, goals and aspirations," Chandler said. "It's [NCOs'] job to lead them in support of our Army and the nation."
LEADING A DOUBLE LIFE
Terry, the NCO in charge of the public affairs office at the 43rd Sustainment Brigade in Fort Carson, Colo., said he lived a double life when the "don't ask, don't tell" law was in effect. But, Terry said, he doesn't see that as too different from the lives most Soldiers live when they take off their uniform.
"To be honest, during my time in the infantry, it was really in the back of my mind. It was something I didn't think about a whole lot because my personal and work life were very separate," Terry said. "I wouldn't call it oppressive by any means, because for a lot of military folks, you're a different person at work than you are outside of work anyway. But obviously it wasn't fun by any means, to have to live a double life, so to speak."
The difference for gay and lesbians serving under the "don't ask, don't tell" law was that they could get fired for the life they wanted to live after taking off the uniform, Terry said. After serving in the infantry for six years, deploying to Iraq twice with the 25th Infantry Division, Terry said he did come "out" to people he was serving with in Iraq. But it didn't affect the relationship he had with his fellow service members, he said.
"People I have come out to, it doesn't change one way or another. I'm still Sergeant Terry to them," he said. "That was comforting, because I did have a few worries. It would suck to lose friends over something so trivial. But I haven't had that experience. It's all been positive."
With the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law, more Soldiers are starting to realize that sexuality doesn't affect how a Soldier does a particular job, Terry said.
"An individual's sexuality doesn't have anything to do with their service as a Soldier or with their job performance as a mechanic or admin specialist," Terry said. "People are just kind of realizing that it's a separate part of their lives that doesn't necessarily come to work with them or affect them as far as being a Soldier or doing their job."
Terry advised Soldiers who are working with others who come "out" to their units to stay focused on the mission.
"It's important for people to respect people regardless of who we love," Terry said. "It's not something that should make or break a friendship or relationship. People need to do a better job of opening their minds and understanding that human sexuality is a very broad spectrum. It's very divisive and mean-spirited to put people in these black and white boxes and assume this is the way things should be."
"I hope people get more comfortable with the whole lot of us," Terry said. "Hopefully, at one point, there won't be a 'them and us.' It'll just be 'us.'"
Cpl. Nathaniel Householder, a communication specialist with the 15th Sustainment Brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas, said he joined the Army to learn a skill. When he joined, he said, he hadn't realized he was gay.
"At the time, I didn't know who I was fully," Householder said. "At the time that I joined, they asked if I was conducting any homosexual activities or anything like that. My answer was, 'Oh, no, I'm not gay.' As some time passed, though, I realized I might be gay. So at the time, it was a non-issue for me. But as time passes, you learn who you are in your life, and that's when I realized that 'don't ask, don't tell' was really a needle in my side."
Under the "don't ask, don't tell" law, Householder said he felt like he was always looking over his shoulder.
"[The law was] a little bit like hell on earth, because you're living your regular life with a chip on your shoulder or a monkey on your back," Householder said. "You're always afraid that someone's going to find out about it, and you have to be careful about what you say, what you do, how you act. You have to put on a facade."
When President Barack Obama certified July 22 that the armed services were ready for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," Householder said he checked with the Judge Advocate General's office to see whether he could be prosecuted, even though DADT wasn't going to be repealed for another 60 days. The office said it wouldn't be prosecuting homosexuals because the repeal was about to be implemented, Householder said.
"The rules were changed to such a point where third-party outings weren't really acceptable. The only way for me to be prosecuted was if I made a blanket statement," Householder said. "September 20th came and passed, and there's really no change, no difference. I didn't come out and say 'Hey, I'm gay.' I came here to do a job, and my sexual orientation doesn't have anything to do with my performance or how I conduct myself. Honestly, no one really cared."
Though Householder didn't formally come out to his unit, he did eventually come out to some of his fellow Soldiers.
"It came out in a retention briefing," Householder said. "A sergeant major came up and asked people why they didn't want to stay in the Army. He asked me, and I said, 'Well, I'm in a same-sex relationship. The Army doesn't offer any kind of benefits for my spouse. There's no automatic support for my spouse, my partner, if I deploy. If my partner gets sick, I can't take him to the military hospital or offer them any kind of health insurance. Housing -- I have to stay in the barracks. If I [am ordered to relocate] somewhere, where's my partner going to stay? So there's really no incentive for me to stay in.' So that's basically how I came out."
After the repeal, Householder said, he realized small things he felt he had to do before the repeal weren't necessary any more.
"I used to leave a portion of my address out so that they wouldn't know exactly where I lived, so there wouldn't be any unexpected visits," Householder said. "A Soldier just recently gave me a ride back home, and I realized that this was the first time someone from my unit had ever seen where I live."
Though Householder doesn't plan to stay in the military, he said it's liberating to serve openly.
"Because that piece of me isn't really being tucked away, I feel like we're more on an even playing field," Householder said. "Here's how I see it. If you're an NCO, your job is to enforce rules and regulations of the Army. The problem is if you're already violating a rule or regulation. Who are you to correct others about rules if you can't obey the rules yourself? I mean I was already in a registered domestic partnership, and that is already a violation of that rule. There were also NCOs who might have known that you're gay, but then they're violating that rule too because they're supposed to report it.
"We're on a more even playing field because I don't have anything I'm trying to hide. No one can have anything against me or blackmail other Soldiers."
On the other hand, Householder has heard talk from some service members of putting "don't ask, don't tell" back into place, he said.
"There's still a lot of people who want to see the policy put back in place," he said. "And my take on that is, if we stay in the closet, and not let people see who we are and that we do exist, we're giving them permission to do whatever they want with us."
Staff Sgt. Sharalis Canales, a combat medic with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier System Center at Natick, Mass., has served in the Army for six years. As a lesbian service member, she said the repeal has made her more comfortable with who she is, and happier about serving and life in general.
"I feel like now I can be in a homosexual relationship, be open about it, be happy about it and let my friends know without hiding it," Canales said.
Working in a behavioral health clinic, Canales said she saw Soldiers who had to work through being gay while serving in the military, as well as those who were victims of Soldier-on-Soldier violence because they were perceived as being gay service members.
"It was very difficult at first, especially from a behavioral health standpoint, because we had many Soldiers come in who were gay," Canales said. "They were having so many issues with their sexuality, and they just couldn't open up because of 'don't ask, don't tell.' It was difficult to see that in my clinic."
Canales said now that the law has been repealed, she hopes to see fewer of those cases in the clinic.
"I'm happy that it's gone. There'll be less violence," Canales said. "We did see some homosexual Soldiers coming to our clinics who were getting beat up by other service members and civilians."
Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Moore, the command sergeant major of U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., said the Army will not be collecting data on gay or lesbian Soldiers. Changes in various Army regulations as a result of the law's repeal mean treating all Soldiers equally, Moore said.
"This is really about treating people with dignity and respect," Moore said. "No one is asking anyone to change their personal views. It's just treating people with absolute dignity and respect. We haven't seen any change in that. There's really no difference. The only thing is you don't stop processing [a potential recruit] who openly admits their orientation. That's really the only change."
If someone was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," there will be ways for them to come back into the Army without any barriers, Moore said. However, given the current drawdown in forces, Moore said it's hard for anyone with prior service to come back in.
"The policy for prior-service re-entry, if it was based solely on discharge for homosexual reasons, then they are fully qualified to come back without any resistance. The challenge is the Army, in its current-strength posture, has very limited opportunities for prior service."
Regardless of sexual orientation, recruits will be welcomed into the Army if they can achieve and maintain standards, Moore said.
"At the end of the day, sexual orientation is a personal and private matter," Moore said. "Those who want to enlist in the Army, regardless of their sexual orientation, could be putting themselves in harm's way. If they're willing to do that, we should be willing to accept them."
Sgt. 1st Class Bernard Perry, an observer-controller trainer at the Joint Multinational Readiness Training Center at Hohenfels, Germany, said "don't ask, don't tell" wasn't really an issue for him since his sexuality wasn't at the forefront of his work life and he didn't feel the need to tell anyone about it.
The training Perry received before the repeal was certified was professionally done, he said, and included a PowerPoint slide show and a question-and-answer section.
"The boss we had at the time who gave it, if he had any misgivings about gays serving openly in the military, it wasn't obvious. He went straight down Army policy -- this is what is expected of us to do."
After the official repeal, Perry said he didn't see an immediate change in his workplace. Though it received a lot of coverage in the media, Perry said Sept. 20 was a day like any other. He compared it to the day President Obama was elected. The significance of the day was reported everywhere in the media, but Perry was in Iraq at the time and said it felt just like any other day.
"With the people I work with here, I'm not sure if any of them knew it happened," Perry said. "I'm sure if they walked by the newsstand and saw Stars and Stripes, they would know. It's been all over the media, but it hasn't really affected day-to-day operations here whatsoever."
By repealing "don't ask, don't tell," Perry said he can let go of one of his everyday worries -- that someone would find out he was gay and threaten his job because of it.
"We're just everyday people like anybody else. We do our job, go home and have the same worries," Perry said. "But our worries [also included] if someone found out about that part about us.
"Based simply on that, we could lose our jobs. I'm glad to see it over, because I think it's the last little bits of authorized segregation -- if you want to use that term -- that's finally gone out the door."