‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ ends in quiet, personal ways

September 20, 2011

Shortly after midnight Tuesday in his bedroom at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Randy Phillips set up his Web camera, dialed his cellphone and called his father in Alabama.

“Can I tell you something?” Phillips, 21, asked, with the camera rolling. “Will you love me, serious? Like, you’ve always loved me, as long as I live?”

“Yes,” his father said.

His voice dropping, Phillips told him: “Dad, I’m gay.”

“Yikes,” his father replied.

“I still love you, and I will always love you, and I will always be proud of you,” his father said later.

This is what the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy brought — hundreds, if not thousands, of quiet, personal exchanges with family, friends, and supportive colleagues who had long suspected they knew. Some gay service members took to podiums on Capitol Hill or attended parties and “coming out” ceremonies.

But several issues remain unresolved, including the granting of equal benefits to same-sex partners and how gay soldiers will be accepted in their units. The Pentagon, which appeared eager to declare victory and move on, said it would work within current federal law to address lingering concerns.

Tuesday, though, was about relief and recognition.

In a Facebook posting, Army Lt. Col. Michael D. Jason summed it up for many in the military.

“ ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ repealed today,” he wrote. “The American citizen has asked some of us to fight for them. We volunteered. Now, as proclaimed by law, stay out of my Soldiers’ bedrooms. About time.”

For Air Force Staff Sgt. John Tegeler, the end of the ban on gays in uniform meant he could walk into his office at Ramstein beaming on Tuesday morning.

“One of my co-workers asked why I had such a big smile on my face,” he said. “Then she said, ‘Oh, yes, I know why.’ ”

But the day was not without worrying reminders that homophobic attitudes in the military are unlikely to vanish.

Tegeler said straight troops still cracked jokes he found somewhat offensive, apparently not realizing that a gay airman was present.

“There are a lot of people who cannot adapt and overcome change,” said Tegeler, 27. “But I laughed it off. I have a thick skin.”

In Washington, Marine Capt. Sarah Pezzat’s voice cracked as she spoke to a room full of reporters and supportive senators on Capitol Hill.

“I’m 31 years old, I’m a United States Marine, and I’m a lesbian,” she said, fighting back tears.

Although she had disagreed with the military on its ban on gays, “I couldn’t completely leave it.” And now as she prepares to deploy overseas, she said, “I don’t have to shove my family back into the closet.”

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a key Republican backer of repeal efforts, joined Pezzat to read from a postcard she had received in June from a soldier serving in Afghanistan.

“Thank you for your courage to vote in favor of repeal as a Republican,” the postcard said. “I will repay your courage with continued professionalism.”

Collins lamented that she may never known who sent her the postcard, signed simply, “An Army Soldier.”

But, Collins noted, “today he can sign his name, and that makes all the difference.”

Despite Tuesday’s milestone, there is growing concern among gay troops that their partners are still denied access to the housing and health benefits provided to heterosexual military spouses. Activists are also shifting focus to the unknown number of transgender troops serving in uniform without formal recognition. And some troops feared that repealing the gay ban might create tensions for tightknit units upset that some members are still facing inequities.

“I think it’s going to bother commanders, and troops who see their friends being treated differently,” said Josh Seefried, who for several years used the pseudonym “J.D. Smith” in leading OutServe, an underground network of gay troops.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta assured skeptics that the military would have “zero tolerance with regards to harassment” and would rely on current standards of discipline to handle adverse situations.

As for further changes that would benefit same-sex couples, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the military from equalizing benefits for them. “We follow the law here,” Mullen said. “We’re going to follow that law as long as it exists.”

Critics seized on the concerns raised by troops as further proof that the Pentagon rushed to end the gay ban without proper study. Elaine Donnelly, a vocal opponent of allowing gays in uniform, said Tuesday’s change “is being imposed on the armed forces to deliver on President Barack Obama’s political promises” to gay rights organizations.

The push to end the ban “was fueled by sophistry, administration-coordinated deception” and fake research compiled by gay activists, Donnelly charged Tuesday.

In Germany, Tegeler and his colleagues weren’t focused on critics. They celebrated the ban’s end with a dinner at a Mexican restaurant near their base. They heard from Air Force Master Sgt. Kristopher Kobernus, who had recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan.

He told those present at the Cantina Mexican Restaurant in Kaiserslautern of the time he and a few friends stationed in Seoul were arrested for being out after curfew. They happened to have been at a gay bar, which triggered an investigation.

“Even though I knew there was nothing wrong with being there, I also knew they now had an idea about my sexuality,” he said. “I was scared.” He wasn’t discharged, but one of the friends at the bar that night was, in part as a result of the arrest, he said.

Kobernus, 37, said gay soldiers should celebrate but also brace themselves for a long road ahead.

“When you go to work tomorrow, the next phase of our battle will officially begin,” he said. “If you decide to come out, the battle for respect amongst your co-workers. The battle for a workplace free from harassment and a battle to prove that all the stereotypes that have labeled our community are just that.”

Read more on PostPolitics.com

Reactions to end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

At Medal of Honor event, the story left untold

DADT: Who is Randy Phillips?

Correspondent Ernesto Londoño in Kabul and staff writers Elizabeth Flock, Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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