Video: Gays in military celebrate new honesty

Special to
updated 9/21/2011 10:42:33 AM ET 2011-09-21T14:42:33

As the highest-ranking member of the U.S. military to come out as gay, retired Rear Adm. Alan S. Steinman had much to celebrate when the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” became official.

To mark the occasion, Steinman invited friends to join him for a party at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Seattle – one of just a handful of such observances held on military bases Tuesday to mark the expiration of the military’s policy banning gays from serving openly.

At the conclusion of his speech, Steinman introduced Dallas Powers, his partner of 15 years. Since Powers serves in the U.S. Air Force, Steinman had been forced to keep their relationship a secret, until Tuesday. The announcement was greeted by a spirited round of applause from the group of officers and civilians in attendance, many of whom had been active in the same civil rights campaign.

Gay servicemembers around the country have been celebrating the policy’s demise at off-base parties since it officially expired at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Since political events are restricted on bases, Steinman billed his event as a private party to win permission from base commanders at Lewis-McChord to use an officers’ club. In keeping with the venue, Steinman's party was considerably more subdued and formal than those that took place off base.

The party attracted a small group of high-ranking, formerly closeted gay officers who, based on their rank, felt particularly vulnerable to being exposed and then discharged under don’t ask, don’t tell.

“I was an admiral, living in a fishbowl,” said Steinman who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1997 – four years after don’t ask don’t tell was instituted. “So people who knew who I was, but I didn’t know who they were.”

'There was nothing to find out'
To guard against discovery, Steinman said he remained celibate, refusing to even socialize with other gay men, during the 25 years he served in the military. “There was no possibility they would find out,” he said of military investigators, “because there was nothing to find out.”

Lt. Col. Chris Rowzee, an active member of the Air National Guard in Toledo, Ohio, spoke about how her partner was afraid to mow the lawn of the property where the couple lived, and how they both avoided shopping together. During one military deployment, Rowzee went into septic shock, requiring an emergency operation. Since Rowzee’s partner wasn’t listed as a spouse or family member, she only learned of the operation by scanning a list of U.S. casualties.

Lynn Briere, a chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard, said she used code words on email and during phone calls, not wanting to leave clues that she was in a same-sex relationship. “I even went on dates with guys, just to keep my cover,” she said.

Originally, the party’s guest of honor was to have been Maj. Margaret Witt, who became a central figure in the civil rights battle after being discharged in 2004 following an investigation of her sexual orientation. The federal suit that Witt brought against the Air Force led to the creation of the “Witt standard,” which required the military to prove its dismissal of servicemember was necessary to ensure “good order, morale and discipline.”

The case against Witt – who had an exemplary record during her 17 years in the military -- failed to meet that standard, and Witt’s legal victories led to a May 2011 settlement that will allow her to retire next week with full benefits.

An honor declined
Witt declined Steinman’s invitation, however, saying that returning to the base where her squadron was based would have brought back a flood of memories.

“It’s hard to go through those gates,” she said by phone. “I was honored to be invited and I admire what Admiral Steinman is doing, but it’s just hard to celebrate this kind of occasion at that base.”

Besides Witt, Steinman invited a wide range of military leaders from the Northwest, but most were either deployed to Afghanistan or out of the region. Their lack of attendance did nothing to dampen Steinman’s enthusiasm, as he said he had no reason to believe it reflected a reluctance by military brass to embrace a new era for gay servicemembers.

Rear Adm. Keith Taylor, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District, sent a senior reserve officer, Capt. Lawrence Henderson, in his place. Henderson, who was the only officer at the party in uniform, pledged the Coast Guard’s “support” for the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. But in keeping with the military’s leeriness of political commentary, Henderson was careful not to offer an opinion of the now-repealed policy, under which some 13,000 servicemembers were discharged.

Steinman’s opinions on the policy have been widely known since he came out in 2003 in a New York Times article, along with two U.S. Army brigadier generals. The three officers said they did so to bring attention to the injustices they observed in the enforcement of don’t ask, don’t tell.

Poll seen as turning point
In Steinman’s view, the real turning point in the civil rights battle came a few years later, as polls revealed that a majority of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suspected they were serving with gay servicemembers and had no problem with it.

“That defeats every single argument for keeping don’t ask, don’t tell,” Steinman said. “Gay troops are already there – and it’s not a problem.”

In Steinman’s view, gay characters in film and television have helped convince a younger generation of Americans to question whatever prejudices they might have inherited from older generations – including members of Congress like Reps. Howard “Buck” McKeon and Joe Wilson, who made a last ditch effort last week to delay the policy’s repeal.

Indeed, of the dozens of younger gay members of the military interviewed for this article, nearly all said that their sexual orientation was known to their fellow servicemembers, as well as to their commanding officers, but wasn’t an issue.

Retired Petty Officer 2nd Class Pablo Monroy said that during his time serving on an aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, he and his friends made a list of every servicemember they knew was gay. Of the 5,000 crew members on the Stennis, they counted 174 gay women and 132 gay men, he said.

Monroy, a local leader for Servicemembers United and now a sergeant in the National Guard, which has been a forceful advocate for gays serving in the armed services, gave a short speech at Steinman’s party: “I can finally say, on a military base, for the first time as an active member of the National Guard, ‘I’m gay,’” he said to applause.

It was the second party in as many nights for Monroy, who organized a countdown to the end of don’t ask, don’t tell Monday night at a gay bar in Seattle called The Lobby. This was a much less formal affair than Steinman’s party, dominated not by officers but by enlisted servicemembers. Over a din of dance music, a slideshow over the bar showed scantily clad, muscular soldiers posing suggestively with military rifles.

Jim Seida  /
George Bakan celebrates the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell at The Lobby bar in Seattle at midnight on Monday.

A machinist in the Navy, Adam Owen wore his sailor suit to the event. With the demise of don’t ask, don’t tells just hours away, Owen was able to see new humor in an episode where he got in trouble for boarding his ship absentmindedly wearing a rainbow bracelet – evidence of his trip to a gay bar the night before.

Tyler Lane had the best tale of culture shock: He had been a fashion student in Los Angeles before he joined the Navy, attracted to the medical benefits and college tuition. Lane attended the Seattle party with Paul Groslouis, who was in denial about his homosexuality when he enlisted, drawn by the prospect of playing clarinet in a Navy band.

Mostly, though, Lane, Groslouis and others at the party said military service appealed to them for the same reasons it does to straight soldiers – in a word, patriotism. While swearing the oath necessary for membership in the armed forces, Lane recalled a feeling both of awe and self-denial.

“I felt like I was betraying myself by being closeted,” he said. “But at the same time, I was doing it for a higher purpose.”

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