Since the 1993 law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” (D.A.D.T.) was enacted by Congress, more than 14,000 gay service members have been discharged, at a cost to taxpayers of $363 million over the last decade. I am one of them. I was discharged just one month ago.
I am a 31-year-old West Point graduate who spent nine years in the military, served as a platoon leader in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy and commanded both a Stryker Infantry Company and a brigade headquarters company in Alaska.
Many people do not even realize the D.A.D.T. policy is still being enforced, especially in light of recent legal rulings, or they think the policy merely asks us not to talk about it. But it goes much further, denying even our ability to exist legally within the military, regardless of the quality of our performance.
As a result, it makes any gay service member a target of anyone who chooses to make an accusation, or a casualty of any unlucky combination of facts that might expose him or her. All someone has to do is to be considered minimally reliable to report a service member as being gay. An investigation results.
I have always told people when discussing the military that “it makes everyone better, teaching us all important values like teamwork and selflessness.”
But if you are gay, I am no longer sure that is entirely accurate. People in the military are not trained to be liars. Our mission is not subterfuge, but that is what this policy forces those of us who are gay to become party to, and the cognitive dissonance is immense. We are trained to manage the fear that may descend during a firefight, but we do not expect to live under the daily fear that our peers may sense something different about us and report us as being gay.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Be
While I spent every hour at work trying, like all my peers, to be the perfect Army officer, taking care of and leading our soldiers, I also spent every day being paranoid, worrying about who suspected I was gay, and what they might do about it.
The paranoia is sickening, and it just eats you from within. Some quietly slip out of the service while others, indoctrinated to serve a cause that is just, stick it out.
The Department of Defense spends millions of dollars and dedicates immense amounts of time to ensure the psychological welfare of our service members remains sound. Except if you are gay. Some gay members of the Armed Services suffer from depression because they try to deal with being all they can be at work, but are unable to live a life that could make them happy.
Unfortunately, from 1993 until the spring of 2010, you could be reported as gay by your chaplain, your doctor and even your psychiatrist. Nowhere in the organization could you be safe if you were gay, even when the assistance provided could be vital.
A colleague of mine relayed a story of a soldier whose boyfriend was killed by a roadside blast while both were deployed. The only person the grieving soldier could safely talk to was an Australian officer he didn’t even know. His most trusted teammates — members of his unit — were not allowed to be there for him when he needed them most.
Failure Is the Only Option
There is no way that a gay service member can navigate this policy with honor, integrity, or self-respect intact. Soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen traditionally know virtually everything about one another. The military is inherently a personal affair. Thus, if you are gay and choose to have a relationship, you must isolate yourself from your otherwise inclusive and close-knit organization, then lie about your “housemate” and cover up where you socialized. There go the Army values of “honor” and “integrity” — values we all believe very deeply in.
If you attempt to comply, somehow, with the policy, you dedicate yourself to the most epic and despicably unnecessary sense of loneliness one can imagine, while working in a profession in which you desperately need the nurturing support of others. I know; I’ve been there. You are forced to lie when soldiers, peers or superiors ask you why you’re not married, or anything else about your personal life.
Many service members end up in a no-man’s-land: they break the rules (i.e. have relationships), but can never maintain something meaningful and long-lasting because of the pervasive environment of fear and deception that they have to maintain. Any route you take, you may be able to maintain your career, but you are destroyed bit by bit on the inside each step of the way. Part of you always feels stigmatized or ashamed for something you cannot change, no matter how badly you might want to.
And no matter what you do, you are somehow failing to live up to the military’s highest stated values, because you are an outlaw as a gay soldier from the day you step into the military. When told to “do the right thing” you are left with no feasible option meet that demand.
I Already Lived in a Post-D.A.D.T. Army
In my case, after the military learned from others that I was gay, I served for 14 more months during investigations and administrative actions to discharge me. Everyone knew, so, essentially, I lived for more than a year in a post-D.A.D.T. work environment.
During that time, I was part of a two-officer team planning our 4,000-soldier brigade’s redeployment from Iraq to Alaska. I did initial planning in relation to the Iraqi elections. I served for one year in the brigade’s planning cell in Alaska after return from deployment. The unit could have sent me somewhere else, but chose not to because they felt I made a critical contribution to the organization and they had always respected my work.
Four months after being found out, and 10 months prior to leaving the Army, I found myself with a boyfriend for the first time in my life, because I was no longer scared to have such a relationship. He and I attended social events and dinners with my peers. I talked about him at work. My life became one of full disclosure.
Amid all of that, the unit continued to function and I continued to be respected for the work I did. Many, from both companies I commanded, approached me to say that they didn’t care if I was gay — they thought I was one of the best commanders they’d ever had. And unbeknownst to me, many had guessed I was probably gay all along. Most didn’t care about my sexuality. I was accepted by most of them, as was my boyfriend, and I had never been happier in the military. Nothing collapsed, no one stopped talking to me, the Earth spun on its axis, and the unit prepared to fight another day.
There are parts of my story in the lives of all of the gay service members who continue to serve in our military — and there are 65,000, according to the Urban Institute. Their commitment is immense. So dedicated are they to service that they eschew the rights that every other soldier enjoys. Their road is more difficult than most people realize, and we reward their exceptionally dedicated and selfless service by undermining their ability to live a happy, honest, and fulfilling life — all of which would actually make them even better soldiers.
I wish that they could tell their own stories, but in a master-stroke of policy-making, they are under a gag order that prevents from discussing D.A.D.T.’s impact upon them, if they wish to keep their job serving their country. So I have tried to tell part of my story.
A Policy Without Credible Rationale
A remarkably consistent string of research reports have shown that there is no link between openly gay service members in the United States or foreign militaries having a negative effect on performance. Nevertheless, the “cohesion” argument remains the primary defense for the policy.
But in the most recent Gallup survey of American attitudes toward gays in the military, every demographic broadly supports gays serving openly. Among 18-year-olds to 29-year-olds — who make up the vast majority of the military force — support for overturning the current policy is at 79 percent.
What this shows, in fact, is that upon entrance into the military, we are indoctrinating an otherwise very accepting group of Americans to be more prejudiced than they were when they entered the military. Meanwhile, some leaders paradoxically argue that we cannot make the change because the force is not ready for it.
Using this logic, racial desegregation of the military would have happened in MY lifetime, not my grandfather’s, simply because an outspoken but small minority would remain opposed to it long after 1948. In that case, we made a change simply because it was right — and enforced the standards in a very rule-abiding military — through the virtue of leadership.
We spent very little time surveying our troops before desegregation, integration of women in the service, women at the military academies, women in fighter jets, women on aircraft carriers or submarines. The most instructive question whenever discrimination was an issue has always been simple: “Can this person do the job?”
The current D.A.D.T. policy deprives us of even being able to make an informed decision. It functions through ignorance, which begets stereotypes without fact. In turn that prejudice, from which good people are forced to suffer.
The words of Harvey Milk actually ring very true: “I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine.”
It is for this reason alone that supporters of discrimination seek to keep the truth hidden, gay service members in fear, and the current D.A.D.T. policy in effect. The only accomplishment of the policy is mandatory ignorance.
Jonathan Hopkins is a former United States Army captain who was honorably discharged in August 2010. Mr. Hopkins graduated fourth in his class at West Point. He was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, earning three Bronze Stars, including one for valor. He is now a graduate student at Georgetown University’s security studies program.
Here is a clip of Jonathan Hopkins appearing on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC in August.