“We believe in a big America. A tolerant America. An equal America that values the service of every patriot…and that includes everybody,” President Obama told a sold-out audience at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner on October 1. It was the first opportunity for the Commander-in-Chief to celebrate the recent demise of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy with the gay elite, and the crowd cheered the long-sought victory.
But as the Champagne buzz faded and members of the Armed Forces went back to a newly inclusive workplace, questions lingered about the acceptance and safety of openly LGBT service members, especially lesbians, in the post-DADT military.
It’s now legal for lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women (but not transgender men or women) to serve openly in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Reserves. Putting its stamp of approval on gay service members’ patriotism and bravery was the least the military could do—but it didn’t address the alarming frequency of discrimination and violence that gay service members will continue to face. The scornful booing of a gay active-duty soldier by the audience at a recent Republican debate proves how far there is to go.
In 2008, for example, women made up 15 percent of the Armed Forces but accounted for 34 percent of the dishonorable discharges under DADT. In the Air Force, the branch with the highest percentage of dismissals, women made up 20 percent of the force and 62 percent of the DADT discharges.
According to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an organization serving military women and veterans, “repeal alone does not make the military safer for LGBT service members.” The group reports that gay service members regularly experience verbal harassment and hostility based on their perceived sexual orientation. One of the few Department of Defense surveys investigating the troops’ perception of LGBT service members found that 80 percent of respondents had heard offensive taunts, name-calling and derogatory jokes about non-heterosexual colleagues. Thirtyseven percent witnessed or personally experienced harassment due to their real or perceived sexual orientation.
One way to potentially improve lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) service members’ experience in the armed forces is to include sexual orientation as a protected characteristic under the military’s Equal Opportunity (EO) policy, which protects service members from unfair treatment in the workplace. Another would be to give same-sex spouses of military members the same benefits as those heterosexual spouses enjoy, such as access to Veterans Administration services, which are currently off-limits because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Armed Forces’ policies are finally becoming friendlier to LGB Americans, but progress remains slow.