Americans love a photo op, especially when it involves two of America’s most hallowed institutions — patriotism and heterosexuality. For many people, Life magazine snapshots of teary embraces on the eve of deployment are second only to photos of wholesome post-war kisses when those couples reunite.
But in neither of these traditional wartime scenes will you see your traditional same-sex couple. America’s unofficial policy of frowning upon gay public affection becomes officially sanctioned when you throw the military into the mix. Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell. Don’t Smooch.
As if plunging battleward isn’t traumatic enough for a 20-year-old gay soldier. Boarding a plane or a ship bound for a war in progress, gay and lesbian servicemembers may find it too risky to even wave goodbye to their partners as they depart.
“It’s like a triple burden,” says Nathaniel Frank, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM) at University of California, Santa Barbara. “Not only are you being sent to war and facing a potential discharge, you’re facing the threat of violence by your own peers at a time when unit cohesion is most central.”
For the half that’s left behind, wartime means talking to their partner with Sergeant Big Brother tapping the phone line, juggling the affairs of two people with less government assistance than is provided to legal spouses, and maintaining their own Don’t Tell policy so as not to compromise their partner’s wellbeing. Add these concerns to the worries of your average military couple, and war can be hell.
“To be honest,” says Lynne, “I haven’t been following the news as much as I normally would. It’s just easier for me to put on my blinders, go to work everyday and ignore the minutia of what’s going on.”
If Lynne were straight, she would be called a war wife. Like thousands of other American women, she is living without the companionship of her partner, who was deployed in the offensive against Iraq. Though she can’t reveal her partner’s name, Lynne can disclose that she’s serving in a Combat Information Center on a naval ship in the Middle East. She shipped out seven months ago.
“She’s been gone a very long time and I’m very ready for her to come home,” says Lynne. “We communicate daily, but it’s difficult.”
Having directly experienced Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Lynne knows that such a discharge is neither comfortable nor quick. A former naval officer, she was ousted from service last year for being gay. For her, the discharge process took nearly three and a half years, a result of the policy’s own ambiguity.
Lynne came out to her commanding officers after “living a dual life became too difficult.” Her commanding officers then wrote a letter to the Bureau of Personnel requesting a formal investigation. That request was issued in the midst of a new administrative order from the naval chain of command stating that commanding officers must now ask permission to launch investigations. Lynne believes her case was the first to prompt such an investigation after the switch in policy, which is why Personnel was confused by the request and, for a long time, simply took no action. Finally, her commanding officers submitted a second letter that “basically said, ‘Nevermind, we don't want to investigate.'”
After that, however, “the wheels slowly started spinning” and eventually, a Board of Inquiry was formed. It decided that Lynne had violated the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Eight months later she was discharged.
Lynne harbors no ill will toward the Navy, and doesn't even consider it a particularly homophobic atmosphere. Her partner has even told many of her fellow servicemembers about her relationship with Lynne.
“Quite a few people in her command know about us,” says Lynne, “but they don't really care. I don't think they would ever turn her in.”
Frank calls this “the best evidence against the need for the ban.”
“There is irrefutable evidence that contrary to what military officials say, a significant number of gay [soldiers] are already out,” says Frank. “That's striking evidence that refutes the basic assumptions of the ban, which is that homosexuality is incompatible with military service, and that open homosexuality would be the worst kind.”
And even if Lynne's partner's fellow troops did out her, that's no guarantee a discharge would follow. Although it bends the rule, some commanding officers choose to stay mum when they hear that one of their soldiers is gay. Just like any employer, that decision usually stems from not wanting to lose good men and women, says Lynne.
“I think their decisions depend on whether you're a good sailor, a good soldier, a good marine,” she says. “If you're crappy at your job and there's an opportunity to discharge you, I think that it would be taken quicker than if you're pretty good.”
Lynne and her partner have been in contact by e-mail and phone. Her partner vents about the hardships of service, and Lynne “burdens her with my problems quite a bit, too.”
“I have to take care of both my affairs and hers,” she says. “I keep track of her bills. She owns a lot of things. She has her truck, and an RV in storage. It doesn't seem difficult until you add it all up.”
But naturally, the military has carte blanche to monitor all communications between soldiers and civilians.
“I e-mail her from an account that has her name on it but not mine, and I never sign the e-mails,” says Lynne. “But as time goes on, we talk more and more normally. In order for us to sustain our relationship, we can't just be superficial. We have to actually say something.”
Frank says it's difficult to tell exactly how closely communications are screened.
“It's very difficult to confirm,” he says. “As with the [Don't Ask, Don't Tell] policy in general, it's the threat of that kind of monitoring and the possible consequences that's most effective.”
Kathi Westcott, Staff Attorney and Liaison to the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), says being outed this way is often a matter of chance.
“There's lots of e-mail going back and forth between ships, and none of it's confidential,” she says. “It just depends on how much time they have and how lucky you are. It's the roll of the dice.”
Surprisingly, even as a former officer with a partner now on active duty, Lynne says she's “not particularly in favor” of this war.
“If I were in charge, I would have taken more time on the diplomatic avenue,” she says. “I'd feel better if a member of President Bush's family were over there.”
Still, given the choice, she would rather still be serving in the Navy.
“I wouldn't say that I'd wish to put myself in harm's way, but I would have liked to serve out my commitment. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to do what I said I would do.”
For soldiers, keeping the mood from turning chronically sour during wartime is a proactive endeavor, and for straight males, nothing props spirits up like getting all adolescent about girls and sex. But excluding one’s self from these powwows can get a guy labeled a fag, and in turn make him a target for the kind of violence that makes a discharge “seem almost mundane,” says Frank.
CSSMM’s Frank has spoken with servicemembers who have fabricated heterosexual relationships, complete with fake love letters and photographs, just to avoid being gay bashed by their peers.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell perpetuates a culture where heterosexuality is the rule, making it all the more essential for everyone to prove [that they're not gay],” he says.
Oftentimes, commanding officers are complicit, or at least willing to look the other way, when this sort of anti-gay violence occurs. The most infamous recent example is Major General Robert T. Clark, the commanding officer who ignored the anti-gay abuse suffered by Private Barry Winchell, which eventually led to Winchell’s murder by a fellow soldier with a baseball bat in 1999. After the murder, Clark refused to issue an order against harassment, and declined to meet with Winchell’s parents, instead sending them months later a cardboard box filled with their son’s belongings. Clark was recently nominated for a prestigious third star by President Bush.
It’s this kind of scenario that worries Brian, a 41-year-old employee at a talent agency in Los Angeles. His partner is a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force.
“If something were to happen while he’s over there,” says Brian, “you can’t bring in lawyers and police and get him out. It’s not at all like when he’s stateside.”
Like Lynne, Brian and his partner are extremely cautious when it comes to evidence of their relationship.
“I’m very nervous about this interview,” he admits. “[My partner] has been in the military for his whole career. He’s close to retirement. If I ever did anything to damage his career I’d never forgive myself.”
And so, when talking via e-mail or phone, the couple keeps their words “sterile.” A soldier’s computer can be confiscated and searched without probable cause, and once the charge of homosexuality is raised, the servicemember bears the burden of proof to dispute it. The accused can request to go before an administrative discharge board to challenge the accusation, but SLDN’s Westcott has a realist’s perspective when it comes to these challenges.
“Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single challenge that’s been successful in the four years I’ve been here,” she says. “It’s such a low hurdle of proof that the government has to get over, the batting record is really, really low.”
Although Brian and his partner have been through many of these deployments during their five-year relationship, this one is particularly rattling because of this conflict’s uncertainty. Brian compares it to his partner’s assignment to Afghanistan last year.
“Those goodbyes are difficult,” he says, “but what’s even more difficult are the hellos. We don’t get those emotional tarmac greetings like you see on the news. When he comes back after being gone for six months, we shake hands.”
Brian’s friends know about his partner’s job. They try to be supportive, he says, but they don’t necessarily understand the situation as well as other military spouses would. For this reason, Brian would like to be able to use the support networks provided by the military to spouses. Obviously, that’s not an option.
There are, however, a few things gay soldiers and their partners can do to make the ban more manageable. For instance, soldiers can list a same-sex person as the recipient of their life insurance, and partners can be listed as a “person of interest” in a list of emergency contacts.
Other than that, so-called “war wives” learn to work with a problematic situation. For Brian and his partner, it comes down to the simple fact that “he loves what he does, and I love him.”