WASHINGTON (March 20, 2012)— At a campaign event in Maryland on Friday, President Barack Obama trumpeted the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as a signature achievement of his administration. Change, he told the crowd, means that “you don’t have to hide who you love in order to serve the country you love.”
But in the six months since gays and lesbians have been allowed to serve openly in the military, many have remained guarded about their sexuality. A Military Times poll published on March 12 found that just one of the soldiers surveyed had come out to his unit since the repeal of the policy; just 25 of the active-duty soldiers surveyed said they were gay, lesbian or bisexual.
In conversations with The Huffington Post, some gay service members expressed varied reasons for not revealing their sexuality, from habit to wariness and even fear of having a career stalled by disapproving superiors. The one constant complaint, however, was the existence of the Defense of Marriage Act, which remains a powerful psychological and financial deterrent to being fully open.
While most of the service members interviewed had come out to a small number of trusted colleagues, all were hesitant to make their sexuality known to wider circles in their units.
"I’m not going to to come out of the closet until there’s a benefit," said "Josh," a Marine reservist in an infantry unit who, like others interviewed for this piece, did not wish to be identified by his real name. "I come out the closet, I cause all this drama with my unit, there’s going to be people that say things. There’s an impact on my career, and then I still can’t give benefits to the person I love. Why? Why would I put myself through all that when I’m not going to get anything out of it?"
The Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in 1996, prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. This means that while gay members of the military may legally marry in a state that allows for same-sex marriage, their spouses are not eligible for medical insurance through the military and couples don’t have the chance to be stationed together.
Josh described the climate in his unit as hostile and referred to coming out as a “career ender.” He recalled a superior’s comment, “Can you imagine that we’re going to have some faggots in our unit? What are we going to do?”
Three junior Marines in his platoon, without knowing he was gay, had spoken about their sexuality to him, Josh said. But he felt unable to tell them he was gay or that coming out was the right idea.
"You can change a rule but you can’t change a culture, and the culture hasn’t changed," Josh said. But if the Defense of Marriage Act were repealed, he would be able to break his silence, help his partner and set an example.
Other members of the military with more welcoming work environments shared similar career concerns with HuffPost. “Sarah” an active-duty Marine, said that while she was pleased about the military policy’s repeal, the possibility of discrimination always lurked at the back of her mind.
"Even though I can’t get kicked out now, who’s to say my fitness reports wouldn’t go down because a higher-up in command didn’t like it?" Sarah said. "I would have to put so much trust and faith in my superior officers, who, obviously, I don’t know. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take because I want to make this a career."
"Tim," an Air Force officer, echoed those worries: "I’m worried my orientation rather than my flying ability would be used in assigning me." He also feared for the career of his boyfriend, an Air Force fighter pilot, if he came out to unsympathetic officers.
For Sarah, the inequality that she saw in the Defense of Marriage Act only added to the psychological burden. “Right now there’s that feeling of, well, we can get married and that means a lot,” she said. “But at the same time I go to work and it makes me feel like a child. It’s like, ‘Oh, you have a cute little half marriage.’”
The federal law assigns gays and lesbians a second-class status, said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “We cannot be a nation with two classes of service members,” he wrote on Tuesday.
In October, Sarvis’ organization filed a lawsuit to overturn DOMA. The case, known as McLaughlin v. Panetta, is one of several challenges of the law filed on behalf of members of the military. The service members group agreed to a stay until April 28, while the government is expected to file a response.
President Obama, who says he is still “evolving” in his position on marriage equality, is personally opposed to DOMA. His administration has said that it will no longer defend the law against legal challenges. House Speaker John Boehner’s office has indicated the Republican leader intends to defend DOMA.
"I’m hoping and crossing my fingers for a DOMA repeal," said "Catherine," an Army medical officer, who noted that she is unable to obtain employer-subsidized medical insurance for her partner. "That’s a big chunk of change to come up with on your own, to pay for on the open market."
She and others said that overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act would likely mean the end of their silence about their sexuality. For “Adam,” a Utah national guardsman, repeal of the federal law would mean he could marry his Canadian partner, procure medical insurance coverage for him and possibly citizenship.
"Jordan," a Navy officer whose husband is a deployed Army officer, would be able to stop turning down desired assignments so he could preserve a decent home life.
"That’s really where the stigma still lies," he said. "It makes it very difficult to explain why you want the things that you want."
But Sue Fulton, the communications director of OutServe, maintained that the environment for gays in the military is better than many believe. Fulton, whose organization supports gays serving in the military, noted that a poll conducted by Outserve just before the repeal went into effect, found that 78 percent of the gay military personnel surveyed had come out to at least some people at work. “Two-thirds indicated they expected their colleagues would treat them ‘universally’ or ‘generally’ with respect, and free from discrimination,” according to the survey.
While agreeing that the Defense of Marriage Act had kept soldiers in same-sex relationships from obtaining needed resources, Fulton said OutServe members had observed positive reactions from straight coworkers since the repeal of the military policy. She urged more closeted service members be open with coworkers.
"Those who haven’t come out, I think, are anticipating a more negative reaction than they will actually get," she said.
A representative from the Department of Defense did not return calls for comment.