September 20, 2011

If President Obama could have ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” by announcing a policy change, rather than his intent to work with Congress to repeal the law, in his 2010 State of the Union address, I might have served in the Marines openly but quietly. But the repeal debate turned ugly, and as gay veterans and gay soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were disrespected by military and civilian leaders, I realized that a quiet transition was not an honorable course of action.

Remarks by senior Marine leaders made clear that their conception of “Marine” did not include those who were gay. During and following his confirmation hearings in fall 2010, Commandant Gen. James F. Amos said that he did not want his Marines dying because of a “distraction.” He probably meant that managing the repeal would be a distraction, but many gay Marines, myself included, felt that Amos was saying that we were the distraction that would get our fellow Marines killed. Given the number of gay Marines in combat, this comment was deeply hurtful.

I am a patriotic American. I am an officer who loves country and Corps. I am doing my best to serve honorably and proudly. And I happen to be gay.

My challenge is not to simply acknowledge my sexuality as a Marine officer but for my actions to reflect the legacy of the Declaration of Independence — that all Americans are created equal and deserve equal consideration from their government. My task is to demand no less from my country and Corps.

I understand that my statements will prompt anger and disgust among some active-duty and retired Marines. History demonstrates, however, that deliberate steps are necessary to overcome the legacy of dishonor and prejudice such as that inspired by “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I have confidence that my Corps will take those steps.

While working in the Senate in the 1990s, I remember Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) taking to the floor and disparaging the “agenda” of gays and their “sinful” and “deviant” behavior. I felt helpless. One day Helms stepped into an elevator in which I alone was riding. Slowly, I realized no words could be adequate to confront him. His hate and ignorance could not be rationally discussed. The only effective course, it seemed to me, would be to disprove him by example, by personifying a proud, honorable and gay American who — simply by existing — refuted Helms’s demagoguery.

I came out to my family years earlier, and I had long been in the habit of letting co-workers become aware of my sexual orientation. Often I made no pronouncements. Engaging in honest discussions about weekend activities or personal relationships was all that was necessary. My guiding principle was simple: If I felt I had to say something or compromise out of fear or shame because I was gay, I had to stop and take the honest course. If I got fired, I got fired. No job was worth the sacrifice of my honor and courage.

In 1981, I had been awarded a four-year Marine Corps Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship. I was aware that I was different — I hated being different — and I was self-conscious. I found it difficult to interact with other midshipmen and Marines, so I left the program. In 1997, however, I knew that “don’t ask, don’t tell” did not preclude my service; it simply required that I shut up about being gay. So I applied and was accepted to attend Officer Candidate School in Quantico in October 1997.

I greatly underestimated the personal cost of this compromise.

After the Battle of Saipan in 1944, Marine Commandant Gen. Alexander Vandegrift said, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.” His predecessor, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, had said that “Negroes did not have the right to demand a place in the corps” and that “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.” It took leadership for Vandegrift to recognize the heroic service of African American Marines and end officially sanctioned segregation in the Corps.

While Sgt. Maj. Micheal Barrett, the service’s senior enlisted official, clearly stated in June that a Marine is a Marine, regardless of sexual orientation, I am aware of no senior Marine officer who has followed Vandegrift’s lead and set a leadership tone that will turn the page on the prejudice of the past. A January video by Amos and Barrett’s predecessor, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, sent the message simply that the don’t-ask law has changed and that Marines follow the law. Action to overcome the legacy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is still necessary.

Vandegrift is an example of the possible. With the formal repeal today of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it is time for the Marine Corps to end the bigotry and prejudice regarding sexual orientation and to give Marines, combat veterans and Purple Heart recipients the respect and consideration they have earned.

Marine Maj. Darrel Choat, a student at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, is the author of a report and personal essay in the “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a forthcoming book from Marine Corps University Press. The views expressed here are his own.