Gay troops cautiously optimistic following 'don't ask' repeal

By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 9:28 PM

KABUL - The gay Army lieutenant's heart had been racing all night.

Shuffling between meetings at his outpost in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday night, the 27-year-old officer kept popping his head into the main office to catch a glimpse of Fox News's coverage of the Senate debate that led to a vote lifting the ban on gay men and lesbians serving in the military openly.

"Don't cry," a 21-year-old specialist, one of the lieutenant's confidants, told his boss jokingly when news broke that 65 senators had voted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

"I'm completely numb," was all the lieutenant could mutter.

Across the world, other gay troops whose lives, careers and relationships have been indelibly, if sometimes quietly, shaped by the ban reacted to the news with a mixture of rapture and disbelief.

Many had seethed for weeks as the political debate over the repeal became laden with sexual innuendo and suggestions that openly gay soldiers on the front lines might become life-threatening distractions.

"I was flipping out," the lieutenant said Saturday night, speaking by phone. "This turned into a [expletive] political fight. We were caught in the middle of it. But the people who it affects the most couldn't do anything about it. We felt used."

The stakes were also high for the specialist. His brother is gay and had vowed to join the Air Force if the policy were repealed this year. Their father is also gay, which made attending military events somewhat awkward for the family.

"It just made for a weird situation," he said.

As the debate intensified in recent months, several service members became emboldened. Many began voicing their positions bluntly and openly through outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

This summer, active-duty gay troops started an underground lobbying group called Out Serve. Members joined by word of mouth, forming chapters across the country, in war zones and in other countries with large U.S. military contingents.

They called key senators thought to be on the fence, telling them of the toll the policy had taken on their careers and personal lives.

"We are hoping to get this issue taken care of ASAP," the chapter president of troops stationed in Germany, a 26-year-old Air Force staff sergeant, said in an interview the night before the vote. "We do not want to run out of time with this Congress. We believe this will be a very hard issue to sell to the next Congress."

Some had become all but hopeless.

"I honestly have closed myself off to relationships, because they were either closeted relationships or there was just too much to hide," said a 26-year-old helicopter mechanic who recently completed a tour in Afghanistan.

A 31-year-old Army medic deployed in western Iraq said the policy has hurt his career.

"DADT has made me afraid to report discrimination," the specialist said in an interview over instant messaging. "I feel that I'm passed over [for promotion] because I am gay."

Cautiously optimistic, the Air Force staff sergeant and a dozen of his gay comrades headed out Saturday night to the Yours Australian Bar, a pub in Frankfurt.

Struggling to hear over the din of bar chatter, rock music and a soccer match, they monitored the hearing on C-SPAN and CNN using iPhones. When the news broke, they roared.

"We cheered like the Germans do for a win during a soccer match," the staff sergeant said from the bar, using instant messaging to communicate from his cellphone. The other patrons looked bemused as the soldiers toasted the news while they ate burgers and drank Foster's beer.

Gay service members interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because the "don't ask" policy will remain in effect until President Obama signs the bill.

For some, the news was bittersweet. That was the case for a 28-year-old West Point Army captain who resigned from active duty this spring after wrestling for years with deprivation, loneliness and half-truths. His boyfriend was sitting next to him.

"Oh God, oh God," the decorated captain, who served two tours in Iraq, said by phone from Dallas as the vote neared. "My heart was thumping."

Text messages began pouring in as soon as the tally was announced.

"So when are you back on active duty?" wrote a straight intelligence officer who served with him in Iraq in 2009.

"LOL. I dunno," the captain responded.

"Let me know so I can get stationed there," the intelligence officer wrote back. "I work with a lot of morons. It'd be nice to have a battle [buddy] with some common sense and discipline again."

Some service members wondered how the military will implement the repeal and how straight troops will react to the change, particularly in combat units, which tend to be more conservative.

"The majority of younger, rank-and-file guys will be fine with it," said Marine Capt. Tom Garnett, who is straight and a reservist at a Virginia law school. "But we are a conservative service, and one angry Marine makes a lot more noise than 30 ambivalent Marines."

At the outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the lieutenant appeared undisturbed about not having all the answers right away as he and the specialist sat in the outpost's tactical operations center.

"I have no idea how the process is going to be," he said. "But we know what the end state is. There's not a whole lot of ambiguity."

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