In a time when Americans can’t agree on much, solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, progressives—even weekly churchgoers—want to scrap the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars lesbian, gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the military. A May 2010 poll showed that a whopping 78 percent of Americans agree that the policy is unfair and should be dropped. And President Obama has said he agrees with them, though, after a federal judge struck down the law, his Justice Department convinced the Ninth Circuit to keep DADT in place while they defend it on appeal.
But as the Senate’s continued failure to act calls into doubt the prospects for eliminating DADT this year, even proponents of repeal assume that the policy only interferes with the ability of gay servicemembers to serve openly, leaving them to conduct their private lives in, well, private. Many wrongly think that DADT means “don’t go to work and talk about your sex life,” according to Aaron Tax, legal director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). But the true scope of the law’s prohibition is far broader. “Don’t tell” means that lesbian, gay and bisexual servicemembers can’t tell anyone about their sexual orientation, in any context, without risking discharge. Life insurance beneficiary forms listing a same-sex partner, personal photographs, a marriage license—even testifying in court against an abusive ex-spouse—could all be the basis for discharge under the law.
Karen and Jennifer (not their real names) are a lesbian couple who both work administrative jobs in the Coast Guard. They’re in a domestic partnership and are raising three children together. Two of their children were born to Jennifer during a previous marriage. Her ex-husband, “Mike,” was physically violent towards Jennifer during that relationship; after she told him that she wanted a divorce, he became increasingly abusive and erratic. He served time in jail for beating her, but that didn’t dissuade him. Once Mike learned that Jennifer was dating Karen, his anger grew even more intense. He once tried to run Karen off the road with an SUV, despite the fact that his children were in the car with her.
The fact that Jennifer had left him for another woman stoked Mike’s rage. “He said he didn’t want his kids being raised by two women,” Jennifer says, and he quoted Bible verses like “God created man and woman” to her. After the divorce, Jennifer was “terrified” that if something happened to her, Mike would automatically get custody of the children. She and Karen started talking about terminating Mike’s parental rights so that Karen could legally adopt the children.
Frustrated and jealous, in 2008, Mike outed Karen and Jennifer as lesbians to their commanding officers. He broke into a computer in their home and e-mailed incriminating pictures of the two women to Jennifer’s commander. He also left a voicemail for Karen’s superior officer outing her as gay. “He said I took everything from him,” says Jennifer, “so he wanted to take everything from me, including my job.”
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Commentators and elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum have obscured the reality of DADT. In a February American Spectator article, John Guardiano asserted that the policy only asks “that gay servicemen and women keep their sexual behavior and activities private and out of the workplace.” When President Clinton signed DADT into law in 1993 as a compromise measure to counter a backlash to his efforts to repeal the ban entirely, he echoed this blinkered view: “Most Americans believe if you don’t ask and you don’t say and you’re not forced to confront it, people should be able to serve.” Following the law’s passage, General Carl Mundy of the Marines agreed: “Those who first and foremost desire to be marines will have every opportunity to do so under the new policy.” Even the New York Times gets it wrong, stating in a September article that DADT “allows gay and bisexual people to serve as long as they do not disclose their orientation or engage in homosexual acts.”