Forced Into Closet By Nation They Serve

July 05, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Wednesday in Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy welcomed the most racially and ethnically diverse class in its history: 14 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American - and perhaps 2 percent to 3 percent homosexual. I added that last part. No one knows how many plebes are gay or lesbian, but studies have placed the percentage of homosexual men and women serving this nation's military in that range, with some 65,000 said to be on active duty. It's a fairly safe assumption that a small percentage of plebes will have to keep their sexuality a secret if they want to graduate from the academy and, after that, fulfill their obligations to the country.

That's what "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" demands.

It forces men and women serving the nation to lie about their sexual orientation or risk discharge. An estimated 13,000 men and women have been discharged under Don't Ask in the 16 years since the law took effect. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network says 277 of the discharges have occurred since Barack Obama became president. As a candidate, Mr. Obama pledged to end Don't Ask. Last week, the he reiterated his support for eventual repeal of the law by Congress.

Skip Muller was a midshipman at the Naval Academy at the start of the Don't Ask era. Prior to entering the academy, he had studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute in California.

"As an 18-year-old I struggled to understand my own sexuality, while all around me I saw people actively targeted, investigated and ejected from the military because they were homosexual," Mr. Mullen writes on the Web site of USNAOut, an organization of gay Naval Academy alumni. "I forced myself to date women and live the lie that consumed and exhausted me for years to come."

After graduating from the academy in 1996, Mr. Muller served two tours aboard destroyers, the second cut short by honorable discharge under Don't Ask.

So the American people didn't get their full payback for Mr. Muller's Annapolis education, and we lost a promising Naval officer who spoke fluent Russian.

Mr. Muller is one of 130 members of USNAOut, which formed in 2003, led by Navy war veteran Jeff Petrie, to provide positive role models for midshipmen and alumni serving in the Navy. The organization posts on its Web site profiles of graduates, such as Mr. Muller and Mr. Petrie.

"If you identify as, or are just beginning to identify as, a Gay or Lesbian Midshipman, you are certainly not alone there in Bancroft Hall," the Web site tells plebes or middies who go to the "The Gouge" page. "Many of us have been in your shoes. We know that for many of you, it isn't a fun experience to figure out that you aren't who you thought you were, particularly if you have to work through the process on your own while at the Academy."

The USNAOut Web site describes the specific don'ts of Don't Ask: "Lying goes so much against the principles that we all learned as Midshipmen. We cannot recommend that you ever take that path. We feel that it is best to 'deflect' any line of questioning that you ever receive, either informally or formally."

Since posting his profile on the USNAOut Web site, Mr. Muller has had contact with about a dozen middies or active-duty Navy men, seeking in confidence a sympathetic ear or advice.

"It has been very rewarding," adds Mr. Petrie. "A great deal of healing has come from this, and friendships have developed, and we feel as though we're playing a role in the lives of those following us."

USNAOut doesn't officially lobby for repeal of Don't Ask, says Mr. Petrie, but certainly its members believe it should go away. Fortunately, so do growing numbers of their fellow Americans. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed by Gallup in May said they favored allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. And some of the biggest growth in support was among conservatives and people who identified themselves as weekly churchgoers.


Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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