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September 23, 2011

‘Don’t ask’ is gone

Law’s repeal ends a 233-year ban on gays and lesbians in the military

Cleveland--As LGBT veterans, service personnel and civilians across the nation watched the clock tick over to midnight, striking in September 20, the  “don’t ask, don’t tell” law barring openly gay and lesbian members ended, bringing to a close 233 years of prohibition.

Cleveland’s celebrations, organized by Northeast Ohio American Veterans for Equal Rights, were held at Twist Social Club, and group president Marie Ann Bohusch estimated over 100 people turned out on a Monday night to fete the end of the discriminatory policy.

“We had veterans showing up as early as happy hour, and many stayed until last call at 2 am,” she said. “I would say it was definitely well-attended.”

President Barack Obama released a statement for the occasion, noting, “As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love. As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members.”

“And today, as commander in chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service,” the release states.

Rep. Marcia Fudge of Warrensville Heights also released a statement, noting, “Repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a victory for fairness and justice. We are stronger as a nation when all men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives in defense of our freedoms are free to make that commitment without hiding their sexual orientation or compromising their personal identity. This historic milestone is welcome and long overdue.”

Alexander Nicholson, a veteran honorably discharged early in the life of DADT and now executive director of Servicemembers United, said, “On March 15, 1778, the first American servicemember was drummed out of the military for being gay. Since then, tens of thousands more have had their careers ruined and their lives turned upside down by a succession of anti-gay policies and regulations, culminating in the codification of an anti-gay statute in 1993 with the passage of the don’t ask, don’t tell law.”

He noted a total of 14,346 people discharged in the 18 years of DADT, including one this year, after Obama signed the repeal bill but before it was certified in July. A 60-day waiting period ended on September 20.

The U.S. joins about three dozen other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, including NATO allies Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.

While DADT and the earlier bans are history, the future is still undiscovered country. It will likely be easier for gay and lesbian servicemembers to report harassment based on their sexuality. Before, such complaints were often held in check for fear of investigation into whether the person actually was gay or lesbian.

Additionally, the military is not offering benefits to partners of gay and lesbian personnel, although around 20 percent of respondents to a poll by the gay and lesbian service member organization OutServe indicated that they would get married to their partner if their state allowed it.

OutServe’s co-founder, who went under the pseudonym J.D. Smith, came out as First Lt. Josh Seefried, an Air Force finance officer at a base in New Jersey.

At 10 pm, a memorial was held at Twist during the reception, honoring personnel who were killed due by anti-gay violence. These included Allen Schindler, killed by a shipmate in 1992, and Barry Winchell, murdered by a fellow soldier in 1999. Two other combat fatalities were honored, Alan Rogers, the first known gay casualty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Andrew Wilfahrt, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Kandahar, Afghanistan last February.

Bohusch also explained that, despite the repeal of DADT, trans people still cannot serve openly. A gender identity disorder diagnosis can lead to a psychiatric separation from the military, and transgender people who have undergone full gender reassignment could be invalidated from service for having had major surgery, similar to women who have had hysterectomies.

The last two major changes in military policy--the integration of African American and female service personnel--saw increases in reports of violence against those groups. Bohusch doesn’t believe incidents of anti-gay violence or harassment will increase, but she believes their visibility will, and that it is a good thing.

“What I foresee is that what already goes on will have a higher reporting ratio,” she said. “When it becomes more acceptable for service members to report post-traumatic stress, or when it becomes more comfortable for women to report rape and sexual assault, the increased reporting rate makes it look like the actual problem is increasing when it’s just a matter that, when it’s okay to report, people report.”

“That will be a good thing, because it will bring the bad apples to light,” she continued. “I think the increased reporting rate will cause the actual rate to decline when the so-called bad apples see either themselves or people around them suffering consequences for that sort of behavior, that they will be deterred from acting on their own biases.”

The United States Army top brass released a letter on September 20 urging the upholding of discipline and respect, saying, “Our rules, regulations and policies reflect the repeal guidance issued by the Department of Defense and will apply uniformly without regard to sexual orientation, which is a personal and private matter.”

The letter concludes, “Accordingly, we expect all personnel to follow our Values by implementing the repeal fully, fairly and in accordance with policy guidance. It is the duty of all personnel to treat each other with dignity and respect, while maintaining good order and discipline throughout our ranks.”

Locally, the renewed focus on the military and gay service members has reinvigorated Bohusch’s organization, NEOAVER, which will begin holding monthly meetings again on the second Tuesday of every month. Their first meeting will be on Tuesday, October 11 at 7 pm at Twist, 11633 Clifton Blvd. in Cleveland.

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