Veteran's Day Resource Kit for Journalists | January 2009
On November 11, communities across the country come together to honor America’s veterans for their service to our country. Veteran’s Day gives journalists an important opportunity to recognize the contributions of service members in their media coverage of the holiday, including the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) veterans. This year, November also marks the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy which places a ban on openly gay service members. The proximity of these two dates creates an opportunity for journalists to explore the contributions of LGBT military personnel and re-examine the harms caused both to individual troops and our nation’s security as a whole by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Veteran’s Day is a national holiday recognized at the federal and state level to commemorate the signing of the 1919 Armistice that ended World War I. The date is celebrated across the country with parades and marches to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, bravery and sacrifice. Though over time there have been increased levels of media visibility of the contributions of LGBT veterans – dating back to a 1975 cover story about openly gay Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich in TIME magazine – far too often their stories are underreported, especially on Veteran’s Day. The holiday also brings an opportunity to address the discriminatory ban on gay service members (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law), as well as the ban on service by transgender people in the military.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
The policy, which was originally called, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass,” replaced an outright ban on lesbian, gay and bi people from serving in the United States military. When he was running as a candidate for president in 1992, Bill Clinton called for a complete repeal of the ban on lesbian and gay service members, partly in response to the murder of Seaman Allen Schindler. On Nov. 30, 1993, after months of hearings by House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the political compromise “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was signed into law by Clinton after it became clear that an appeal of the ban would be impossible. On January 28, 1994, the policy was officially enacted.
The costs of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have been great. Since 1994, more than 12,500 military personnel have been dismissed from various branches of the United States military because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at a cost of at least $363.8 million to the Pentagon. According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 800 of the dismissed service members had skills deemed critical by the Department of Defense, including linguistic training (more than 325 translators discharged), medical skills, and expertise in combat engineering. Between 1998 and 2003, the military discharged gay personnel serving in 161 different and critical occupational specialties, including 49 nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare specialists; 90 nuclear power engineers; 52 missile guidance and control operators; 150 rocket, missile, and other artillery specialists; and 340 infantrymen.
Media pressure against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has increased in recent years. Since 2006 alone, prominent newspaper editorial boards have called for the law’s repeal. The list includes USA Today, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Shreveport Times, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The Denver Post, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Oregonian, among many others. While this support by respected media outlets sends a strong message about the policy, the inclusion of stories about lesbian, gay and bi military personnel and veterans can play an important role in the ongoing conversation about this issue.
"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell": Policy
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prohibits lesbian, gay and bi service members from disclosing their sexual orientation or relationships. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN):
“An honest statement of a service member’s sexual orientation to anyone, anywhere, anytime – even if not related to military service and made outside of the workplace – may lead to discharge.”
This applies to all uniformed personnel, including gay troops in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, National Guard and Coast Guard, as well as students in America’s service academies and ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps). Military personnel who have already served their ‘Active Duty’ component and are now in the reserves or even retired may also be punished under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” military personnel cannot be questioned or investigated about their orientation by supervisors. However, if their orientation is made public in any way, they can be investigated and fired. SLDN and other groups serving LGB military personnel indicate that troops are often asked about their orientation or investigated without clear reason, and are discharged despite the stated rules of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Steps have been taken under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to prevent harassment with little effect. According to a 2000 Department of Defense study following the murder of Army PFC Barry Winchell, who was killed by fellow troops who thought he was gay, 80 percent of service members surveyed had heard anti-gay slurs during the last year, and 5 percent had also witnessed a violent, anti-gay assault.
Some of the troops who have been dismissed include:
- Margaret Witt, a major in the Air Force Reserve, was discharged after an anonymous tip led military investigators to track down her former civilian partner and ask if they had lived together.
- Marine Corporal Kevin Blaesing, Marine of the Quarter for his unit, faced discharge proceedings after his Naval psychologist turned him in for asking questions about sexual orientation. Blaesing succeeded in having his discharge overturned, but his commander retaliated against him by downgrading Blaesing’s performance evaluations, making it impossible for Blaesing to reenlist.
- Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Benjamin, an Arabic language specialist, was discharged in 2006 despite ongoing critical shortages of Arabic translators in the U.S. military. An annual inspection of his base uncovered an instant message conversation between Benjamin and his roommate who was deployed to Falluja, which included remarks that indicated that they were both gay. His former roommate was discharged at the end of his tour of duty.
- Arizona state legislator and U.S. Army Reserve First Lieutenant Steve May wrongfully faced discharge proceedings in 2000 because of comments he made about his orientation while on the floor of the Arizona state legislature during a debate on domestic partnership benefits.
- In 2003, Army recruiter Sergeant Sonya Contreras came out as a lesbian to escape the anti-gay harassment from her commander and fellow officers. Despite their harassment, she was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after five years of service.
Transgender Service Members and Veterans
Transgender Americans are banned from serving in the military under all conditions. They may not enlist whether they have transitioned or not, and troops that tell their peers about their gender identity or who are suspected of being transgender can be discharged. This includes sharing feelings with a psychologist or doctor.
Cross-dressing and other actions that do not follow strict military rules on gender behavior can also put transgender and gender non-conforming service members at risk. For instance, Air Force Major Joanne DeGroat, before she began presenting as a woman full time, was discharged after 15 years of service – solely for following her Air Force psychologist’s advice to dress in women’s clothing while off-duty and off-base as a part of her treatment.
Transgender military personnel have served successfully and with distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces, waiting to transition until they have finished their service. According to the Transgender American Veterans Association, it is estimated that there are at least 300,000 transgender veterans. Sadly, transgender veterans run into discrimination and harassment even after retirement.
A 2008 survey conducted by the Palm Center reports that one-in-ten (10%) of transgender veterans were denied their veteran’s health benefits and turned away from the VA for being transgender. Almost one-quarter were discriminated against by VA doctors (22%) and non-medical staff (21%) at VA clinics. Many others (over one-third) have been discriminated against at their jobs or have not been hired because they were transgender. Diane Schroer, a former Army Special Forces commander, won a recent high-profile case against the Library of Congress after they rescinded a job offer upon discovering that she was transgender.
- Interview an LGBT veteran, focusing on their experience in the military and how they have been affected by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
- Explore “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” more broadly and talk about the harms caused to the military and the nation’s security by the policy.
- Contact your local LGBT community center to see what events are held on Veterans Day.
- Speak with a transgender veteran and talk about their relationship to veteran’s organizations and the military community at large.
- Analyze the health care access issues transgender veterans face at VA hospitals and clinics.
- Talk to a transgender veteran that participated in the historic march to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. to commemorate and celebrate transgender veterans in 2004 (Go to www.tavausa.org for more information.)
Lesbian/Gay/Bi glossary of terms: See GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide section devoted to LGB terminology.
Transgender glossary of terms: See GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide section devoted to transgender-specific terminology.
- Report of the General/Flag Officer’s Study Group on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Palm Center and SLDN)
- Transgender People in the U.S. Military (Palm Center, TAVA and SLDN)