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Giving Every Soldier a Voice: The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

News & Features | October 10, 2011

In the harsh fluorescent light of what looks like a dorm room, a short-haired young man in a white t-shirt sits down at his desk, gamely facing the camera he has placed on himself. “I’m probably about as nervous as I ever remember being. I’m about to call my dad in Alabama…” And so begins the now viral video of 21-year-old Randy Philips, a gay soldier stationed in Germany who publicly came out to his father on his extremely popular YouTube channel. The video continues as Philips nervously dials the number and tells his unsuspecting father on speaker phone, “The hardest thing that gay guys will ever have to say.” The young soldier and his millions of viewers wait with bated breath for the reaction of a father’s first time hearing the words, “Dad, I’m gay.”
After a softly uttered, “Yikes,” to everyone’s relief Philips’ father adds in a southern drawl, “I still love you, son. Yes, I still love you.” After a loaded pause he adds firmly, “It doesn’t change our relationship, you hear me?”
American soldiers around the world celebrated the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or DADT, on the morning of Tuesday, September 20th. Despite some conservative opposition, Obama removed the 18-year-long ban of openly gay individuals serving in the armed forces, stating “[if] you want to be commander-in-chief, you can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States even when it is not politically convenient.”
Signed into law by President Clinton, DADT prohibited those serving in the military from discriminating against closeted individuals but also prevented homosexual servicemen and women from sharing any information regarding their sexual orientation. This controversial law created many difficulties for gay men and women in the military by ordering them to keep important aspects of their lives, families, and relationships secret from their fellow soldiers. It also caused pain and humiliation for those who were discovered to be gay and quickly discharged from the military because of their sexuality.
The recent repeal of DADT swung open the closet doors for those previously living in fear of losing their positions and esteem in the military. Philips’ heartwarming conversation with his father put a youthful face on the many members of the military that have suffered the ramifications of the act for years, like Navy Lt. Gary Ross, who flew to Vermont the morning DADT ended to marry his partner of 11 years. American soldiers across the world are experiencing the relief and the freedom of being able to speak the truth for the first time.
Many veterans who were once discharged for their sexuality are also celebrating, and many have expressed the desire to re-enlist and begin their military careers again. Joseph Rocha of Sacramento, California experienced endless harassment for his sexual orientation when he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 18. Though he was discharged in 2007 for being gay, he still feels called to serve his nation and would re-enlist if given the opportunity. “It’s a unique and beautiful thing most of us feel we were robbed of and would take the first chance to have it back,” he said, echoing the words of many other vets that will attempt to rejoin the military now that the law is repealed.
Yet despite the celebratory nature of the repeal, there are other hurdles to be conquered. Because of high enlistment, there is no guarantee that veterans like Rocha will be able to rejoin the military if they wish to serve. Benefits for partners of homosexual soldiers are also at a standstill, because, like most of the United States, the military does not recognize gay marriage as a legitimate union. This means the significant others of gay servicemen and women cannot live on military bases like other soldiers’ partners and do not have access to support groups and other services that are normally provided to the family members of soldiers.
And not all members of the military were thrilled about the repeal. Emily Mears, the Staff Assistant for Tufts’ own LGBT center and reservist in the Coast Guard for ten years, is skeptical that true change will come to the military. “Even though you change the law you do not change the minds of people that have to follow the law,” she said, adding, “Most people that I know are overjoyed and might feel more comfortable now, but I do not.” After surviving sexual assault perpetrated by a classmate during training, she was vigorously questioned by her supervisors about her sexuality, “as if it had anything to do with it.”  This experience, along with her poor treatment during the investigation, left Mears “hypersensitive to DADT and what it meant to be treated like a second class citizen in the military.” She plans to end her affiliation with Coast Guard within the year.
As a symbol of the progress we have made as a nation and as individuals, Randy Philips’ emotional moment with his father was broadcast around the world. For so many servicemen and women that have been living in fear and anxiety, the military’s recognition of its gay members as equals was a truly historic moment in time. However, the lesser-known video that Philips made that same day was his call to his mother. Her reaction was colder than Philips’ father’s, filled with pauses of disbelief and confusion as the young soldier talked her through it haltingly, working toward a shaky acceptance.
Positive changes in equality occur every day, in leaps and bounds like the overturning of a discriminatory law, and in small, subtle increments, like a mother learning to accept with her son’s identity. Year after year, time marches on like soldiers in a row, as the nation does its best to mend old wounds and create the foundation for a more just society.