ColumnsWhat A World

War Stories

A remembrance of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
by Nancy Ford

The first time I became aware of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer was in April of 1993, on the lawn in front of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. That Monday morning after the March on Washington was overcast and gray, a high contrast from the almost blindingly sunny weather that had dominated the festivities of the previous week when more than a million LGBTs marched down Pennsylvania Avenue calling for, among other basic American rights, the end of dishonorable discharges based on military folks’ sexual orientation.

Col. Cammermeyer had been released from duty in the Washington National Guard in 1989, for stating during a security clearance that she is a lesbian, a fact about herself that she hadn’t long understood.

Curious how this middle-aged woman, as portrayed in Serving in Silence, the 1995 made-for-TV-movie about her life, can have a thing about wearing a uniform, play football and guitar, drive a Jeep, divorce her Mormon husband to cohabitate with her left-leaning hippie artist girlfriend, and still not know she is a lesbian. Was Captain Obvious on furlough, unavailable to crack the code of Col. Cammermeyer’s many lesbian signals?

Six or eight speakers followed each other at the podium set up in front of the Pentagon that morning in 1993, taking turns in the drizzle to call for an end to the inequality imposed upon its queer servicemembers. As she spoke, Col. Cammermeyer gestured over her shoulder to the five-sided building, reflecting on her previous 30 years of service to that institution. Most of the speakers were discharged gay and lesbian veterans; the exception was Dorothy Hajdys, whose gay son, Allen Schindler, had been stomped to death only a few months earlier by fellow U.S. servicemen.

The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was written into law only three months after that rally, shattering President Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Some say his decision was a political compromise; others say it was a betrayal. Either way, it was as though gay and lesbian servicemembers could hear the federal government saying, “God, I love you,” as it hobbled their bound ankles with a sledgehammer, à la Kathy Bates in Mercy.

In the 18 years after DADT was instituted, more than 14,000 gay and lesbian servicemembers were unjustly discharged and denied benefits; an incalculable number of lives were needlessly wasted if not ruined. Among those 14,000 were more than 50 linguists considered experts in Arabic translation who were forced to sit idle on September 11, 2001. No joke.

The question of whether gay men and lesbians make for loyal and capable military personnel has also been answered repeatedly by scientifically tested fact-finding studies, even though that question had already been answered by examples as diverse as Alexander the Great to Joan of Arc to Gomer Pyle, USMC. Even our country’s 15th commander-in-chief, President James Buchanan, a veteran of the War of 1812, is said to have been gay (though nobody asked and he didn’t tell).

In 1957, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gates Jr. wrote in The Crittenden Report: “No data shows that gays can’t serve well.” The study came in response to a 1950 report of an Investigations Subcommittee chaired by Senator Clyde Hoey, a Democrat from North Carolina, which  stated the U.S. government’s intelligencia were “in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.”

Ultimately, the Hoey Report was found to be a bunch of hooey.

In 1989, the same year Col. Cammermeyer was discharged, the Perserec Report agreed with Crittenden: “Gays are not security risks, and do not disrupt order, discipline, or morale.”

In 1993, a Rand Study agreed with its predecessors.

Additionally, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health estimates that a full 10.7 percent of women who serve in the military are lesbian or bisexual. That’s more than one in ten—a bigger representation than all of the lesbians on Logo and Bravo TV, combined.

I encountered Col. Cammermeyer again in 1997, when she was the keynote speaker at the Texas Lesbian Conference. Heralding Col. Cammermeyer’s entrance that night was a cadre of drummers comprised of six skin-pounding women, some of them military, some not. To protect their identities, they could only be photographed from the knees down. They called themselves Illusas, which translates to “mocked” or ridiculed,” and boldly marched into the hall to the tongue-in-cheek cadence of “I know a girl who rings my bell, we don’t ask and we don’t tell!”

Marie Mariano spoke at that conference, too. An early Lesbian Health Initiative volunteer, Marie had spent ten years in the military, including a stint as a registered nurse in a M.A.S.H. unit in the Korean War. Referring to the climate of secrecy she was forced to exist in, Marie recalled: “We never even said the word [lesbian]; not even among ourselves.”

Now deceased, Marie was 76 years old when she fearlessly spoke out about the indignities she endured as she served her country. After finally coming out of the closet at age 71, she said: “I feel like I’m living now!”

I bet she’s sitting up on her cloud right now, grinning and saluting.

“There is a sense of vindication
having challenged the antigay policy in 1989 and still a profound sense of humility of the final success and sadness of the human cost,” Marie’s sister soldier Col. Cammermeyer wrote on her blog last month, when DADT was formally lifted. “There is the hope that, as the military moves forward on implementing the repeal, that those serving appreciate the efforts of those who preceded in this battle. And we won the war!”

Thank you, Col. Cammermeyer; we do appreciate your efforts. And Marie’s. And Allen’s. And those daring Illusas’, and President Buchanan’s, and all the gay men and lesbians who have always been in the military, serving silently in all branches, in all capacities.

Victory is ours. God bless America.


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