Gay troops unleash emotions at end of long fight

Retired Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning is surrounded by other repeal supporters in San Francisco as the decisive vote is announced.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning is surrounded by other repeal supporters in San Francisco as the decisive vote is announced. (Paul Chinn/san Francisco Chronicle Via Associated Press)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 19, 2010

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 His brother is gay and had vowed to join the Air Force if the policy were repealed this year.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.

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