9/11 Changed the Debate on Gays in the Military

There were many factors leading to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ten years ago on September 20, 2011. One of them was 9/11.

Gay discharges had surged from 617 in 1994, the year “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was implemented, to 1,273 in 2001, the highest since 1987. As they did in every conflict from Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf War, gay discharges declined after the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 reflecting the need for personnel — from 906 in 2002 to 261 in the final year of the ban. A total of 13,650 service members ultimately were kicked out under “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Americans came to recognize after 9/11 how “Don’t ask don’t tell” forced out service members with critical skills necessary to protect our nation.

Take for example Army Specialist Cathleen Glover. As I was my ushering staff out of our offices at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on 9/11, two blocks from the White House, Army Specialist Cathleen Glover was on lockdown at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Only halfway through her studies, she and her classmates were watching Al Jazeera, furiously translating what was being said. Her study of Arabic had just become much more valuable. Her sexual orientation, however, made her expendable.

Like many lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members who joined the armed forces, Glover thought she could compartmentalize her life. Her partner moved to Monterey to be with her, but the stress of hiding strained the relationship beyond the breaking point. In a poignant column for The Monterey Herald, she wrote: “The truth is, none of us realizes how difficult it is to lead a double life in which a relationship must be conducted behind closed doors and … lies.” She was discharged after coming out.

Army Sergeant Bleu Copas, an Arabic linguist at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was discharged in 2006 as a result of an anonymous tip that he was gay. He had signed up to serve our nation, he said, “out of a post-9/11 sense of duty.” Investigators never identified his accuser. That was the reality of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” where rumor and revenge could easily upend a promising career.

In a segment on Copas’s story, The Daily Show noted that after 9/11, facing a shortage of recruits, the military had raised the recruiting age to 42, accepted people with criminal records, and accepted high school dropouts and people with low IQs to fulfill recruiting requirements, but the military “had to draw the line somewhere” — and that line was gay crypto-linguists.

Or consider the story of Captain Joan Darrah who joined the Navy in 1973. She was in the Pentagon on 9/11 — in fact, the hijacked American Airlines jet crashed into the room where she had led an intelligence briefing only minutes before, and seven of her colleagues were killed. The event shook her to her core. She wrote this about her experience:

“In the days and weeks that followed, I went to several funerals and memorial services for shipmates who had been killed. Most of my co-workers attended these services with their spouses whose support was critical at this difficult time, yet I was forced to go alone.

“As the numbness began to wear off, it hit me how incredibly alone Lynne would have been had I been killed. The military is known for how it pulls together and helps people; we talk of the ‘military family’ which is a way of saying we always look after each other, especially in times of need. But none of that support would have been available for my partner, because under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ she couldn’t exist.

“This realization caused us to stop and reassess exactly what was most important in our lives. During that process, we realized that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was causing us to make a much bigger sacrifice than either of us had ever admitted. Eight months later, in June 2002, I retired after more than 29 years in the U.S. Navy, an organization I will always love and respect.”

There were other seismic events besides 9/11 that changed the debate on gays in the military. The murder of Private First Class Barry Winchell by fellow soldiers who thought he was gay shocked the public out of a complacent attitude that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was some benign policy, or as President Bill Clinton had called it in 1993, “an honorable compromise.” The Pentagon tackled anti-gay harassment in the ranks as a result, an action that was essential for the ban to be ultimately and successfully lifted.

The coming out in 2003 of retired Brigadier Generals Keith Kerr and Virgil Richard and retired Rear Admiral Alan Steinman meant the Pentagon could no longer argue that gays had not served at the highest echelons of the military and with great distinction.

In 2003, sociologist Gary Gates crunched data from the 2000 census and confirmed that approximately 60,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans served in our armed forces and that there one million LGB veterans. The debate was no longer about whether gays should serve, but how commanders should treat those under their command. Notably, as Congress debated “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010, many Members recognized the significant lesbian, gay and bisexual contingency in our armed forces.

Public opinion started to shift as these stories, and so many more, gained traction. In 1993, 90% of service members said they were uncomfortable with gays serving openly. By 2010, 70% said it was no big deal. In 1993, only 44% of the public supported gays serving openly; by 2010 that figure was 75%.

The shift in attitudes and the impact on our military shaped the political debate. In 2010, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.” Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said lifting the ban would not be the “wrenching” event many had feared.

Repeal has been a big nothing burger in terms of policy. The sky did not fall. But for lesbian, gay and bisexual service members, and now transgender service members for whom President Joe Biden has lifted a ban on their service, it means the world. It means that they can serve our nation as their full, authentic selves, focusing on our nation’s security rather than a government prying into their sexuality. As Bleu Copas, who signed up to serve because of a sense of duty after 9/11, wrote to me the day after the Senate voted to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” though now a civilian, “The only thing I noticed is my head was held a little bit higher on the drive in [to work]. … weird feeling.”

— For about the strategy leading to repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” read my newly published book Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ https://www.cdixonosburn.com



C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.

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C. Dixon Osburn

C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.