It’s been 10 years since the repeal of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that for nearly two decades closeted thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. But its harmful impact is still felt by those who served under the discriminatory policy.
“These scars don’t go away just because the policy is gone,” said Lindsay Church, the executive director of Minority Veterans of America.
Church, a native of Washington state who now lives in Richmond, served in the U.S. Navy from 2008 to 2011 — all but three months of that were under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The policy went into effect in 1994 under former President Bill Clinton, who campaigned on the promise to lift the outright ban on gay or lesbian people serving in the military that had stood since World War II. At the time, it was hailed as a compromise, but in practice became an extension of the earlier prohibition.
Former and current service members in Richmond and beyond say “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — even after its repeal a decade ago — meant they lived and served in fear, and that the policy carried with it a sense of shame that many still contend with today.
Church, like other gay, lesbian or bisexual veterans who served before the policy’s repeal on Sept. 20, 2011, was allowed to serve, as long as they didn’t talk about or act on their same-sex preferences. They were forced to hide part of who they were for fear of losing their livelihoods.
“You expect better from an institution like the military, where I’m willing to come there and live the oath of honor, courage and commitment, and you’re asking me to compromise very basic like tenets of who I am,” Church said. “That hell will never be unlearned. There will never be a part of me that doesn’t have that scar of literally lying because they made me.
“And somebody, somewhere will tell me that they didn’t make me, but at the end of the day, I had to serve. Like I had to do that, to be myself. My family taught me, military service was what we do.”
Church is a third-generation sailor. Their mother and grandfather, as well as a great-uncle, an uncle and a cousin, all served. Military service was as “intrinsic to who I am just as much as my gay or my queer identity,” Church said.
Between 1980 and 1990, about 17,000 service members were dishonorably discharged “under the category of ‘homosexuality,’” according to a 1992 U.S. Government Accountability Office report examining the Department of Defense’s policy ahead of the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” An additional 13,000 service members were dishonorably discharged under that policy enacted in 1994, according to an Associated Press report from 2016 that found that fewer than 1,000 had appealed to have their discharge changed.
“Those lives were just simply ruined and distorted by the military, despite the fact that these folks had raised their hand and said, I love this country so much that I am willing to separate myself from who I am in order to do it,” said James Millner, director of Virginia Pride and an LGBTQ advocate and activist.
A dishonorable discharge, or anything other than honorable, is like having a felony record in the civilian world, Church explained. In 2012, Church’s military career ended with medical retirement following a life-threatening medical condition that would eventually require nine surgeries. Between 2009 and 2010, Church spent 55 days in the hospital and for five months lived in a medical recovery barracks, during which time they weren’t able to have their partner visit.
“I was on basically my deathbed and I couldn’t talk to my partner, my girlfriend. I didn’t have that support,” Church said. Others interviewed spoke about how lacking that kind of support during deployments made them even tougher. “These were all very basic life things that we just couldn’t do because it was illegal.”
Church initially joined the Navy as part of a delayed-entry program in 2003, right around the invasion of Iraq and a troop surge. Then between graduating high school and shipping out to boot camp, Church came out at 18 years old.
“Putting myself back in the closet at that point didn’t make any sense,” they said, and Church decided not to go to boot camp. Church spent those formative years trying to figure out who they were and what they wanted to do. But the call to serve remained.
“I needed to do my civic duty, to be a part of something,” said Church, calling the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan “our generation’s war.” In 2008, Church enlisted at age 22.
Even though part of the policy was “don’t ask,” Church and Ashley Carothers, an Air Force veteran who served from 2005 to 2013, recalled signing a form at boot camp agreeing not to engage in homosexual conduct.
“My whole family taught me: honor, courage and commitment,” said Church, reciting the Navy’s core values, “and like the very first day that you’re there, you already have to like swear off who you were in order to be accepted.”
That fractured identity continued even after service, Church said. A decade separated from her service, Church still struggles to make sense of it.
“I held deep shame for years,” they said. “When I got out, I didn’t feel like I could be queer for a very long time, like I couldn’t be a part of the queer community, not because I had done something wrong, but because I believed that I had sworn off my community to do something else.”
Five years after leaving the Navy, Church co-founded Minority Veterans of America, a nonprofit to help underrepresented veterans, including those of color, women, LGBTQ, religious and non-religious minorities find community and advance equity. It began about 12 days after former President Donald Trump announced an executive order banning openly transgender individuals from serving, Church said.
“We knew how harmful those policies are like the hide-yourself-if-you-want-to-serve,” Church said.
They blames their failed marriage, at least in part, to living under the repressive policy.
“I had no idea how to be a partner to somebody after living for years of denying that I had a partner and that that part of my life existed,” Church said.
Carothers, the Air Force veteran who lives in Washington, D.C., was part of an underground movement of LGBTQ service members called OutServe that helped bring down the policy from the inside, she said. But just before its repeal in 2011, she was outed to military officials after pictures of her and several other service members at a Pride parade were published in a paper back home. She was stationed in Germany at the time, she said.
She was lucky though, Carothers said. Her commanding officer, while surprised, was supportive and protective.
“He was very open about it. And he was like you’re kind of changing my mind about this whole thing,” Carothers said.
But even after the repeal, prejudices remained and there were service members who still couldn’t openly serve depending on who they worked with. Church and Carothers suspect a decade later that it’s still true today, especially for transgender troops.
But many, like Lauren McManamay, a flight nurse for a West Virginia Air National Guard unit, are currently serving openly. McManamay, a graduate nursing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been serving since 2008. In 2012, she met her now-wife, who is part of the same Guard unit, and the two got married five years ago.
“I’ve been extremely accepted,” McManamay said. “That was like a salve on an injury I didn’t realize I had, I suppose.”
McManamay was raised in a small town in West Virginia and in the church, so accepting herself was difficult at first. She prayed and struggled with her dueling identities, she said. The military helped broaden her worldview — she got stationed in D.C. where it was more progressive and had a large LGBTQ community. Then, with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she no longer had the mental struggle when it came to putting on the uniform but hiding her true self.
“Because I can be open and out in a career that gives me so much personal fulfillment, it’s helped me accept myself for who I am,” she said. “With the repeal of that policy, it’s amazing because you can wear your uniform, be who you are, serve your country, do what you’re passionate about, and be yourself. And that’s huge. It really genuinely changed my life. It genuinely saved my life. I don’t truly know where I’d be without it.”
Millner with Virginia Pride said part of why the policy was so oppressive was because people affected by it, people in the military actually serving, couldn’t speak out against or advocate for its change, because it would out them.
“Let’s be clear, I mean, this policy, the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy came out of political expediency and it survived because of political expediency. It wasn’t done because there was any real rationale for it,” he said. “Everything that people said, what happens if lesbians and gays were allowed to serve openly in the military, that it would destroy a unit cohesion, that it would create this wave of sexual assaults, and that it would destroy our military readiness and all of this other kind of things never happened.”
The 1992 GAO report said the Defense Department had already studied “whether homosexuals were more of a security risk than heterosexuals and concluded that there was no factual data to substantiate that premise.” It also found the same rationale prohibiting gays or lesbians from service was also used to limit the integration of Black troops.
“Everybody that was involved in this policy, both ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the ban of lesbians and gays in the military beforehand, knew that all of that was a load of crap,” Millner said. “It had nothing to do with the success and the cohesion and the abilities of our military. It had everything to do with denigrating human beings.”
Since the repeal, there has been progress made toward LGBTQ equality, both in the military and civilian world. In 2013, the Defense Department extended the same benefits to active-duty same-sex couples as heterosexual couples. This meant that they were entitled to survivor benefits should their partner be killed and both partners would be recognized as parents or guardians of their children. The Department of Veterans Affairs resisted this until 2015, following the lead of the Supreme Court, which in a ruling legalized same-sex marriages.
Progress took a step backward under Trump, when he banned transgender individuals from enlisting. Many feared the return of policies like DADT, Church said. The Biden administration undid the transgender ban on service in his first 100 days in office. But still, rates of suicide and sexual assault remain higher among LGBTQ veterans than their cis- and heterosexual counterparts, who already have higher rates of suicide than the general population, according to reporting from the Military Times.
Stephanie Merlo served in the U.S. Army from 2003 to 2007. She wasn’t out before she enlisted, but found her authentic self during service, though she still had to hide it.
Merlo was sexually assaulted by a woman while she was stationed aboard. She didn’t report it, she said.
“If I tell somebody, I’m incriminating myself,” she said. “I just started my career, and now, I am faced with the possibility of being kicked out because I’m gay. Also this person was higher ranking than me, and that scared me. ... So I went throughout my whole time there being scared.”
Merlo, who runs the Richmond chapter of Minority Veterans of America, said she loved serving her country and the like-minded friends she met along the way, with whom she could be herself.
“But there’s so much that I’m still suffering from mentally because of it,” she said. “I would like to be off of medications; I would love to not have to talk to a therapist every week; I would love to be able to hold a job because I’m actually getting along with people.”
She was fired from her first job after getting out of the military for being gay, Merlo said.
“I still feel like that misunderstood soldier that’s still trying to find their place at times,” she said.