I asked him a simple question, “Do you regret signing up for the Air Force?” He paused for a second, looked down, and looked me in the eyes and said,“I do.”
Later in the day, I was in another unit as they were talking about the upcoming Air Force Ball. I watched as my friend struggled to explain why he hadn’t asked a girl yet to the ball. When the conversation turned to me, and which woman I was bringing, I froze; I didn’t know quite how to respond to the assumption I was bringing a woman and what the appropriate response would be.
This was not before the repeal of 'don’t ask, don’t tell.' This was a few weeks ago.
Two years ago, the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fell. And even though there have been no major issues with the repeal, we have forgotten one important component: the struggles of gay service members coming out.
As leaders of the policy to repeal DADT, we focused on the policy talking points that a lot of us were out already and that it wouldn’t be a big issue. But the truth is, even if we were out to select coworkers, none of us had truly lived a fully open life until the past two years. In a way, we were all teenagers coming out for the first time.
When the military repealed DADT, it created “training” to help with repeal, but out of the hundreds of PowerPoint presentations that were created to “help” the smooth transition of repeal of DADT, not a single one focused on a resource to help a gay servicemembers come out. On September 20, 2011, military commanders were so focused on making it a “non-issue” that they forgot to say, “Hey, here are some resources if you are going to be coming out to family and friends.”
The military ignored this fact about helping gay troops with the new world they would soon face and we as activists did as well because we were all too focused on making it a nonissue.
This ultimately led to a sort of a divide in which a lot of gay troops continued to say, “I don’t want to bring up my sexual orientation, because it’s about my work and the job I do.” That very mentality exemplifies the prejudice we still harbor when it comes to sexual orientation and how it is treated in the military. A recent survey in New Zealand showed that over 30% of gay troops still keep their sexuality hidden and they have had their policy changed for much longer than ours.
If we go around our military jobs pretending our sexual orientation is not part of our humanity, we will remain invisible soldiers with no family, friends, or fellow soldiers who care for them, with little chance of holding a high position in military leadership. That invisible picture destroys the hopes of the thousands of gay and lesbian youth who desire to serve their country someday, and it erodes the hopes of the currently serving gay service member who believes he would not be respected if he came out.
Over the next year, gay service members—not organizations, not policymakers—need to make a few priorities and the largest of that priority needs to be visibility, to truly help culture change and the focus needs to be out at the bases around the world, not just at the Pentagon. There’s two ways this should be accomplished.
First, we need more gay actively serving figureheads. Every day, I walk past Eric Fanning’s photo, the man who is the current acting secretary of the Air Force, and every time I do, I am filled with a sense of pride. I say to myself, “That can be me. That can be any other gay service member someday.”
We have yet to have a male general come out of the closet. This is an issue because they exist and have chosen not to come out—yet. Unlike our trans brothers and sisters, we don’t have to hide anymore. To continue to hide in the closet is to give in to the very people who have discriminated against gays over the years. Once you start a dialogue, you break down the walls of prejudice. It is up to us gay soldiers currently serving to show leadership, come out, and break down those walls.
We also need more mentoring between LGBT servicemembers. The Pentagon LGBT group holds a professional coffee session on a weekly basis. This is something that should be mirrored across the military. The more we connect, the more we will be able to support each other. Once these professional groups are more stable at bases, not only is a support system in place, but visibility on bases will increase. For example, Pride planning at military installations should be a priority starting now. Though some Pride functions are happening, the most visible being at the Pentagon, it needs to take place worldwide. By next year, it should be our goal that every installation hold a diversity event for LGBT Pride Month.
We think that DADT repeal helped everyone come out and there shouldn't be issues. But there are, and there always will be. It's a personal decision that isn't easy for most and, honestly, we haven’t paid enough attention to it. It's the hidden scars that keep us in the closet.
Josh Seefried is a currently serving Air Force officer and past co-chair of OutServe-SLDN; he is also the author of Our Time: Breaking the Silence of DADT. The opinions here are personal and not meant to reflect the opinion of the Air Force or Department of Defense.