In the past couple of weeks, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of media coverage on Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT). Over time, the American people have come to understand the ramifications of the military ban and its devastating impact on our armed forces, through stories from the service members affected by it.
I had the distinct privilege of assisting one of those soldiers, helping to share her story. Today, with her permission, I'm exclusively sharing her final words on the matter before her discharge under the DADT policy next Tuesday.
A little bit of background - On January 28, I received a touching email from a woman by the name of Sandy Tsao. She identified herself as a Chinese American Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, based in Missouri, who had made the brave decision to come out as a gay woman. She had met with her commanding officer to share the news, even though she was aware that the conversation would cause an end to her service.
In her first email to me, she wrote:
Besides God, being able to serve and being myself are the most important things to me... I am all sincerely yours just let me know what I need to do.
She also wrote a letter to President Obama, pleading for him to repeal the military ban so she continue to serve her country. On January 29, she had emailed me that the White House received her letter and it was under review.
She also wrote:
"I sincerely appreciate your help and your team's hard work. I have signed my paperwork today for the charges and will be beginning my case shortly. Thank you for keeping my personal information confidential, I only want myself to be solely responsible in anything that may happen should the outcome be negative."
With Sandy's approval, we began pitching her personal story to national media outlets with strong records of coverage on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But we didn't receive a single reply. So we took her story to Asian Pacific Islander media outlets, leading to major hits in The World Journal, a Chinese language daily newspaper and Audrey, a magazine for Asian American women. In her Audrey op-ed, she explained the reasons for coming out and why she wanted to continue serving her country. Sandy also shared her story with The Windy City Times that resulted in their reporting here.
On April 30, Quinnipiac conducted a national poll, with 60% of participants agreeing that not allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military is discrimination. Public opinion over DADT was on Sandy's side.
So was President Obama. On May 5, Sandy emailed me with some exciting news - The White House had mailed her a personal handwritten note from President Obama. She also enclosed a copy of the letter in her email.
"I received this on Cinco de Mayo. Cried when I got it. Anyway, please do as you please with it. Just wanted to give you the heads up."
In January, Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs reiterated that then President-elect Obama would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. President Obama's personal reply to Sandy served as another strong piece of evidence that he planned to keep his previous campaign promise to repeal the ban.
With Sandy's permission, I wrote a blog post last week about her story and the letter from President Obama.
The post sparked nationwide coverage of Sandy's story and the military ban. Top television news shows including MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show and ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos featured the topic of GLAAD's post as the lead story.
The Windy City Times also continued with their great coverage.
The blog post was featured and linked to by a host of influential print and digital outlets including Reuters, The Huffington Post, Politico, St. Louis Dispatch, Atlanta Journal Constitution and Mother Jones. The post was also reported on Memeorandum.com as one of the most popular news memes on the Internet.
A flurry of media requests poured in from news shows, newspapers and magazines interested in interviewing Sandy. I called her to discuss the possibility of her participation, but she politely declined and promised that she would mail a letter explaining her reasons why.
Yesterday, I received a package from Sandy and I am still shocked by its contents. Inside I found the personal handwritten note from President Obama, along with the White House envelope. On top of the letter was a sticky note that read:
"Gift for Andy. I hope this will help you in the mission."
While Sandy has declined future media appearances, she has offered up one last piece of commentary through her letter to me. She has given GLAAD exclusive permission to share her thoughts.
From Sandy's letter (emphasis mine):
"I will need a couple month's time to get my affairs together after I am officially discharged from the army. In addition, an engineering curriculum requires extensive preparation in order to build a good foundation in math and physics if one hopes to succeed in it. This is my #2 dream job so I want to give it my all."
She also wrote:
"I have strong feelings to contribute to society by being a part of a profession that will welcome my services without hindering my ability to love someone openly. Thank you again for keeping me abreast with all the voicemail messages and emails. You are truly a Godsend."
Sandy closed her letter with the simple sentence (emphasis mine):
"To equality for all."
Any rational person can understand why Sandy has decided to take time for herself. Next Tuesday, May 19, she will officially be discharged from the US Army, for simply wanting to uphold the military values of integrity and honesty by serving as an openly gay woman.
It is on that day the United States government will take away her #1 dream job.
Instead of honoring Sandy for her service, she has been forced to let go of a dream that defined her very character. It is only natural that Sandy would need time to mourn this loss and try to plan for her future.
With this blog post, I hope I am able to share another side of Don't Ask, Don't Tell that people often forget - the lives that must be rebuilt and the dreams that must be forgotten. Similarly, I hope Sandy's story, and other like it, will resonate and continue to be shared. The brave men and women of our armed forces deserve nothing less.
Similar to Sandy's story, is that of First Lieutenant Dan Choi who has been an outspoken advocate on repealing DADT. If Dan is discharged, he will become the first Arabic linguist to be fired as a result of coming out as a gay man. Keep in mind, Dan's specialty in Arabic has been noted as a language priority for our national security alongside Farsi, Korean and Mandarin.
Dan will join the 12,500 other men and women who have been discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. A Blue Ribbon Commission Report found that discharging openly lesbian, gay or bisexual people in the military cost $363.8 million dollars spread over ten years.
On Tuesday, May 12, the now White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs at the press briefing repeated President Obama's commitment to repealing the ban but through legislative means.
Connecting the dots for people on the personal nature of Don't Ask, Don't Tell remains a top priority for GLAAD. We will continue to encourage media outlets to examine and scrutinize the debate around the reasons for delaying a repeal of the military ban. Further, we will make a concerted effort to work alongside our partners, introduce new voices into the conversation and ensure media are equipped with the resources to report on this critical issue.
On a personal note, Sandy and I remain in touch even though she has stepped away from the public eye to focus on her rebuilding her life. I am honored that she has given me her handwritten letter from President Obama, but I only consider it to be on loan.
It is my hope that in the very near future, I'll be getting a phone call from Sandy. I'm hoping on that call she'll be asking me to send this gift back. I'm hoping to hear her say how proud she is that her commander in chief has fulfilled his commitment to her, like she had bravely fulfilled her committment to our counrty.
And I'll know that it was stories like Sandy's and Dan's that helped moved a country, to move a President, to move the most powerful military in the world "to equality for all."