Wearing a Navy baseball cap, large round glasses and sporting a thick graying mustache, 66-year-old Denny Meyer looks like many other Vietnam veterans. The son of German Holocaust refugees, Meyer was raised to appreciate his American freedoms, and when he witnessed flag burnings on his college campus, the native New Yorker succumbed to a patriotic impulse and joined the Navy. But as he enlisted to protect the freedoms he loved, he was forced to give up his own freedom: his status as an openly gay American.
“I had to lie to get in as opposed to other people who lied to get out,” Meyer said. “We called it serving in silence.”
A little more than one year after the September 20 anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), the 1993 law banning openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender citizens from serving in the military, veterans and active service members are advocating for additional changes for LGBT military personnel. While the DADT repeal allows lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens to serve, it did not allow transgender citizens to serve openly, nor did it give equal benefits for same-sex marriages. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies all the rights that other military personnel enjoy.
“We want to keep moving forward,” said Zeke Stokes, communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit legal services provider and policy advocate. SLDN is suing the government on behalf of military families denied benefits and support because of DOMA. Many routine activities, like the ability of a spouse to gain entry to a military base to pick up children from day care or a partner from the hospital, are denied, Stokes said. Survival benefits for families of troops killed in the line of duty cannot be given to an unacknowledged spouse.
While Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnston can now display a picture of her wife at work, she still had to pay out of pocket for her wife to accompany her during a recent location transfer. “The Navy can’t do anything until the federal government does something about it,” Johnston said.
When Sue Fulton came out as a lesbian seven years after she left the Army, DADT was being passed as a compromise by the Clinton administration, to prohibit harassment against LGBT service members while still preventing them from serving openly. Now, as communications director of OutServe, a professional support network for active service LGBT personnel, Fulton pushes for true equality. “[The repeal of DADT] was the right decision for the military to make, and it went even better than the military expected,” she said. “We need DOMA repealed so the balance of benefits that straight spouses are entitled to is extended to gay and lesbian spouses.”
At a celebration at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum for the repeal’s September anniversary, more than 1,000 civilians, veterans and active service members, many outfitted in full dress uniforms and comfortably holding the hands of their same-sex partner, recognized the DADT repeal as historic, but just one step in their quest.
Danny Hernandez, who attended the event, was kicked out of the Marine Corps in 2010 after his commanding officer discovered he was gay. As a first generation American growing up during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Hernandez joined the Marines in 2007 with a “sense of patriotism,” he said. Eventually, for reasons he still doesn’t know, he was outed, and his sexual orientation was investigated under DADT. “I wasn’t dancing in the streets with a rainbow flag,” said Hernandez, now a law student at Temple University. Despite his attempt to reenlist, he was denied reentry.
The DADT repeal means that veterans like Hernandez can now apply to have their discharge papers changed to reflect an honorable status; previously, service members forced out of the military because of their sexual orientation were given a dishonorable discharge or a discharge with a reenlistment code of “4,”which makes them ineligible for reenlistment and puts them in the same category as those discharged for committing a crime. Only service members who receive an honorable discharge are eligible for full veteran’s benefits.
For 20-year-old U.S. Military Academy Cadet Elizabeth McCracken, the repeal means she can have a future in the military. “Prior to the repeal I was afraid that my career would have been limited either by getting kicked out of the Army or by feeling that in order to have a family I would have to give up the Army,” McCracken said.
Before the repeal passed, many military and political officials saw DADT as a way of allowing LGBT citizens to serve without harassment, as long as they hid their sexual orientation.
“A lot of people think ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a great thing. It wasn’t,” said Russell Goeller, a 44-year-old New York native. Goeller, who sports a gold ring with the scarlet Marine Corps emblem on his right hand, was kicked out of the military in 1990 after three and a half years as a Marine, when his roommate turned Goeller in for being gay. Goeller, who is bisexual, said that homosexuality was unacknowledged but rampant in the military before DADT. “Nobody cared unless someone made it an issue,” he said. But DADT changed some of the unspoken acceptance that had begun in the late 1980s, Goeller said. Friends who were still in the Marines told him “it became a witch hunt,” he said.
Today, attitudes of gay men as “a sissy that skulks around in the shadows” have changed, Meyer said, but, DOMA is still a problem. “That law is the major sticking block that makes our military a two-tier system,” he said.
According to Fulton, there are steps the military can take to extend rights to same-sex couples without waiting for DOMA to be repealed, much like the State Department has done through recognition of domestic partnerships, but a fear of the unknown holds people back from making those changes. “It isn’t easy to come out in the military, but it’s important,” Fulton said. “If someone doesn’t think they know someone that’s gay or transgender it’s easier to believe these lies that they’re horrible people.”
“A marriage is bringing two things together. That’s all that is,” added Goeller, who has been married to his wife for 15 years. Unemployed, with a 14-year-old son, Goeller doesn’t understand why politicians argue about something like DOMA. “Human kind has not changed that dramatically in 40 years,” he said, explaining that same-sex partnerships have been around in different forms for centuries. “The only thing that’s changed is attitudes and acceptance.”