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DADT And The Future For Gays In The Military

September 20, 2011 12:59 p.m.

Today is the first day of a new era for gays in the military: They are free to speak openly about their sexual orientation without fear of being discharged.

Related Story: End Of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Arrives With Little Fanfare


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition is the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In a city with as much military presence as San Diego, the end of the policy banning open he gay service members is a major event. Even after a 17-year struggle to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell, some questions remain about how many gay soldier, sailors, and marines will choose to come out of the closet, about military benefits for gay couple, and about how a small minority opposed to the change will accept the end of DADT. I'd like to welcome my ask, Bridgette Wilson, an attorney who practices military law and a consulting counsel for the service members' legal defense network. Welcome to the show.

WILSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We're asking our listeners to join the conversation, to give us a call and share their reaction to the don't of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Many people lament that it's taken 17 years to over-turn Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but in reality, didn't a lot of hearts and minds have to be changed to make this possible?

WILSON: Well, the military is a lot like any other part of society. On some levels, it just cooks at a higher temperature. So indeed, over the last number of years, we've seen a real change in attitudes. And by the time we've gotten rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, it was not uncommon to see commanders absolutely ignore it. So really, this change has more than come.

CAVANAUGH: What is the actual difference today, now, that DADT has been overturned? What can a gay service member do legally today they couldn't do with Don't Ask, Don't Tell in place and they can say they are gay. And not just in the work place. Don't Ask, Don't Tell didn't just prevent people who said they were gay in the work place. If you were discovered, if you were to have said you were gay or be found out to be gay, anywhere, 247, you could be discharged. As of today, gay service members are subject to the same rules that their nongay counterparts are. That is, you can't engage in misconduct, and you get to live your life without us pursuing you. Do we have a good estimate of how many members of the U.S. military are gay?

WILSON: You know, the numbers are kind of rubber right now. My understanding is the number ranges in about 60,000.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I've read speculation that most gay service members won't choose to come out, even with the DADT repeal. Why not?

WILSON: I think people come out irregularly, even in civilian society, especially in the work place. In part because it's a habit. When you have people who have concealed themselves often for years, they get a little nervous. Secondly because they don't know what reactions they will be facing when they first come out. And I think people will be cautious. Some people will come out today. Some people will put a photo of their partner on their desk and just simply deal with this as normally as everyone else does their life. But I think there are people who will have a wait-and-see attitude, and I think when they figure out they don't need to be frightened, they'll relax about it a little.

CAVANAUGH: And is there something special perhaps about military culture that might distill discourage people from being openly gay?

WILSON: Well, to the extent that military culture can sort of be the world of macho men, it's the same issue for women in the military. But they can't hide. There is some of that. But don't forget, there's a lot of gay men who are perfectly macho men. I think people will be surprised if they do discover who the gay people are around them that they really didn't know who was there. And so indeed, there are challenges in a military culture. But there's challenges in a military culture in many, many ways, and I think this is one of them. Remember, these people are already serving. If they're continuing to serve, they have been serving faithfully and well for a while. And I think that's going to be the thing that will make this easier.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Bridgette Wilson, an attorney who practices military law. We're talking about the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And we're inviting your calls at 1-888-895-5727. How about people, Bridgette, who were discharged from the military because of Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Can they be reinstated?

WILSON: My sense, and we've already been told this, they may come back into the service if they still meet the general requirements that they would need to reenlist, and they are needed by the service of the that's kind of two prongs. One, a lot of these folks will have aged out. In other words, if they have been out for a while, if you had someone who was in their thirties already, they may actually by matter of age not be able to return to service. And the age levels differ a little from service to service. They will discover, for example, it may be really hard to come back into the service as a 32-year-old private first class.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So they can reenlist, but they will not be reinstated.

WILSON: They won't be reinstated. They won't be getting back benefits, they won't be getting promotions. They won't be getting any of that. They will come back in as a return enlist. A reenlist. . If they can.

CAVANAUGH: Why no reinstatement?

WILSON: Well, to be honest, I think the fastest way to get something done in Washington is to not have it cost money. I think that's the frank answer about that.

CAVANAUGH: One of our callers who didn't want to stay on the line wanted to make sure that we get in the idea that people who are transgender are still not able to join the military; is that correct?

WILSON: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: The California based research group that you work if, Bridgette, the palm center did an awful big job in gathering data to support the notion that Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be repealed. What are -- what's some of the most compelling arguments that you gather indeed that research?

WILSON: Well, we had to get past just fairness. In all honesty, I think the unfairness was apparent to a lot of people. But because of the propaganda from opponent, and the God-awful hearings prior to the passing of Don't Ask, Don't Tell into law, people were going, well, is this going to affect how well our military functions? Because function, mission is the point of military service. Palm did extensive research with other nations' militaries, especially those more similar to us culturally, like Canada and Britain in particular, and also paramilitary forces like fire departments and police agent agencies to kind of say to people, not that big a deal. Small bumps, not big ones. And I think that research really helped pave the road to repeal. It wasn't all of it. But it helped quell some of the fears that I think were being raised, and which I think some people of good faith needed answers to.

CAVANAUGH: What harm do you think Don't Ask, Don't Tell did to the U.S. military?

WILSON: I think it cost the military a lot of good people. Not just those people who were caught, so to speak, but those who just simply chose not to stay because of the -- it was just intolerable to not be a human being in this world. People think it's easy to just not say you're gay. But this was a policy that erased people on virtually every level of their life. And any breathing human being doesn't want to sit around and watch every word they say for fear they will be discovered. So you've lost a lot of good people, unnecessarily, for a very long period of time.

CAVANAUGH: Just last year, Marine Corps comment on general James Amos argued against the repeal, saying the lifting the ban could harm troops' combat effectiveness. I'm wondering, are all branches of the service ready to implement this change?

WILSON: They have all said they have been. And what happens with marines, and they're the ones who will tell you this, once they have been told to do something, they will do it. So my understanding is that each and every one of these service chiefs has said we are ready to do this. Remember that the armed forces are probably the one institution in our society that does the most compellingly good job of making people work with each other who are all very different, whether it's your father or cousin or sister, whoever you know who has served in the U.S. armed forces eight probably 28 you that when they arrived for their initial training they were surrounded by people who were different than any they'd ever met before. And somehow the services managed to say to them mission first. We don't have time to do anything else. And I think that attitude will prevail.

CAVANAUGH: Do you know what kinds of actual preparation have gone into getting regular service members ready for the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

WILSON: Yeah, they've done some pretty extensive briefing in terms of just talking about how to treat each other with dignity and respect. Affirming that harassment and abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable, that misconduct rules will indeed be enforced against everyone across the board, no one gets special treatment here. Or detrimental treatment in a selective manner. And it -- you know, that this is a neutral environment. And I think that's the goal. Obviously you're always going to have people who don't accept this, but you'll be amazed at how well they work together. We still have a lot of men in the military who don't think women belong there at all, but somehow they manage to work with them.

CAVANAUGH: Are you foreseeing some kind of a backlash to the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

WILSON: Yeah, you see backlash every time you move forward. There will be some. And I think that's where people need to remain vigilant. There will be some who will seize on any potential incident that arises as proof that this doesn't work. In reality, if you look thea the integration of women and racial minorities into the armed forces, we still have occasional instance in that regard. But that doesn't mean that we don't have those people there.

CAVANAUGH: Right. What do you see as the next battles for gay military personnel in their efforts toward full equality?

WILSON: Well, I think the issue of benefits is going to be big. You're going to have some people -- the good thing about young people is that they don't look back. They look forward. And so people will be talking about the fact that, wait a second, I went over seas and I got shot at, I gave of myself, I served my country, but I don't get the same benefits, and my life is not recognized in the same way my heterosexual colleague's life is. My partner, spouse, is not recognized for purposes of benefits. Even thought the logistics of being stationed overseas is going to be a little different and more difficult for them. So I anticipate that bit by bit, people are going to say, wait a second, this doesn't work.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I'm wondering, I know that you and the Palm Center have been so vigilant in compiling data to argue for the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. How will researchers be tracking the effect of the repeal on the military?

WILSON: Well, here's one of the really good things is that they aren't -- they will be much less guessing what's going on. They won't be having to estimate and do statistical analysis over try to figure out how many of the people in a sample conceals their sexual orientation. Now they'll be able to speak openly with individuals, and I think that will help a great deal to track the progress of this.

CAVANAUGH: And will researchers be doing that at the Palm Center?

WILSON: I think the Palm Center may typeset to do some things. There's discussion that maybe it's time for the Palm Center to wind down a little bit. Because, in all honesty, you did your thing. You have managed to affect this repeal. I anticipate there may always be some version of that research going on. But probably less extensive just because we have reached goal one.

CAVANAUGH: Have you worked on this issue for such a long time, are you celebrate in any way today?

WILSON: Yeah, I'm going over to the LGBT community center in Hillcrest for the 6:00 o'clock celebration this.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to tell everyone, there are several events mashing and celebrating the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, and one of them is a freedom to serve event at the San Diego LGBT community center in Hillcrest. I've been speaking with Bridgette Wilson, an attorney who practices military law, and co-legal director thea at the palm center. Bridgette, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Maureen, thank you.