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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' will end on Sept. 20
by Chuck Colbert
2011-09-14

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Within a week's time, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell ( DADT ) ," the ban on openly gay military service, will officially end, closing an ugly and costly chapter of blatant governmentally sanctioned discrimination against gay Americans.

Repeal of the nearly 18-year old federal law Sept. 20, means that gay, lesbian and bisexual troops can no longer be discharged from the armed forces solely on the basis of sexual orientation.

Repeal "is an important milestone along the journey to achieving LGBT equality," said Army veteran Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) , an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that provides legal assistance and information to LGBT troops.

"Sept. 20 will be an historic day for our service members and, indeed, our nation," Sarvis said. "Through the events taking place across the country, we will pay tribute to their service and sacrifice as we look forward to this new era of military service—an era that honors the contributions of all qualified Americans who wish to serve."

SLDN alone has more than 50 repeal-day celebrations scheduled nationwide and around the world, everywhere from one planned at the legendary Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, to another set for Philadelphia where former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, a leading proponent of lifting the ban while in Congress, will be the headliner. Other celebratory events are scheduled from Boston to Atlanta to San Diego to West Hollywood to Honolulu to Germany.

Here in Chicago, at least two events are planned. Chad Singer serves as host for an SLDN-sponsored night out at Sidetrack at 8-11 p.m. In another event, Navy veteran Jim Darby, president of the local chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights ( AVER ) , is pulling together a traditional memorial service, complete with a giant 50-foot flag raising, the singing of the national anthem, and the playing of "Taps."

Darby said the event, scheduled 6-7 p.m. in the Baran Library at the Center on Halsted, would also include a couple of speakers giving five-minute talks on how the end of DADT and new era of open service will affect people now and in the future.

During a telephone interview Darby, a Korean War veteran, said the end of DADT feels like "somebody gave you a birthday present and said don't open it until whenever."

"You know you are going to get it," said Darby. "So some of the oomph of the celebration is gone." Still, "I am completely relieved and happy," he added.

President Obama, delivering on a campaign pledge to the LGBT community, signed repeal legislation into law Dec. 22, 2010. However, a provision of the measure required the president, Defense secretary, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman to "certify" military readiness for DADT repeal. After months of training to implement open service, the top three defense officials sent written notification to Congress July 22 of troop preparedness to lift the ban. For repeal to take effect, however, a 60-day waiting period ( until Sept. 20 ) was required.

Meanwhile, historian Nathaniel Frank, author of the 2009 book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America," offered an historical perspective on dawn of a new era.

"This is a big win politically for the LGBT community and for advocates of equality and civil rights," he said in a telephone interview. "In one sense, a major shame for the country will be wiped away although its legacy and heritage will always be there," he added.

"This was a unique form of discrimination because the policy was not on its face value about excluding people," Frank explained, adding, "It was about denying [ gay service members ] existed and forcing them not to talk about themselves. This was a policy of institutionalized denial and ignorance, and prejudice."

Indeed, the end DADT holds personal significant for the Navy-vet-turned-activist Darby. Lifting the ban "removes a big road block," he said, because the country's "largest employer," the U.S. military "is not going to be discriminating" against gays any more.

"We are fortunate to be living in a time when this is happening," he added.

Over the years, the now 80-year-old Darby, who served as an enlisted communications technician and held a top secret clearance, has been an ardent advocate of repealing "don't ask, don't tell." In 1991 he founded the Chicago chapter of AVER then known as the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans of America. Since then, Darby has served as president five times.

In 1993, when then-President Bill Clinton tired to lift the military's ban on gay service, Darby traveled to the nation's capital five times that year. At one White House sit-in demonstration, police carried him away. Darby remembers a police officer asking, "Are you going to get up or are we going to have to pick you up?"

"Oh, honey, you can pick me up anytime," said Darby, recalling his reply.

After four years of service, which included duty stateside and overseas, Darby received an honorable discharge in 1956. Relying on the GI Education Bill, he went on to earn a bachelor's and master's degree and taught English, Spanish, and French in the Chicago public schools for 30 years.

While in the service, however, Darby was encouraged to make a career of the Navy. His commanding officer ( CO ) suggested he re-enlist, even offering Darby two years at Monterey language school to study any language he wanted.

However, citing "personal problems" Darby declined the offer. "I just knew I could not last 20 years," he said. Darby was sure, he added, the CO knew the "personal problem he had to work out" was all about being gay.

Like many sailors, Darby landed assignments that he liked. "I was very fortunate because I went from radio school in Seattle to Teletype school in Washington, D.C., to Russian language school—all things I loved to do."

Nevertheless, the Navy four-year navy man also came close to being discharged for homosexuality. "I was investigated in Seattle while waiting for a top secret clearance," he said, recalling a dark room with five men sitting around a table. "Their very first question," he recalled: "Do you know what a homosexual is?"

"I was terrified that I had been found out" said Darby, fearing this was the end of his career.

What prompted this investigation? Darby had gone on liberty with a friend suspected of being gay. Somehow Navy authorities thought he was involved. Investigator asked "crazy questions," Darby said, recalling a few of them: "Did I hear any sounds coming from a nearby bed? Who slept with whom? And finally, what do you think of homosexuality?"

"I said it was against my religion," said Darby who got the top-secret clearance.

DADT dates back to Nov. 30, 1993, when Bill Clinton signed the policy into federal law, although drumming gay soldiers out of the military dates back 233 years to the American Revolutionary War when the first gay soldier got the boot. As early as March 11, 1778, the Continental Army kicked out Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin, who is "the first known soldier to be dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality," according to the late Randy Shilts in his 1995 book Conduct Unbecoming. Enslin's offenses were sodomy and perjury.

The current ban on openly gay service members was a compromise measure between the president and Congress. Clinton had campaigned on a promise to end sexual orientation discrimination in the armed forces but once in office bumped up against strong opposition from Congress and Pentagon top brass.

DADT was supposed to mean that gay, lesbian and bisexual persons could serve, but only by staying closeted. In reality it was a nightmare even for those who stayed quiet. Some were outed by fellow service members; some commanders interpreted "telling" as being on a gay dating website, or other personal acts; and some gays were pursued and persecuted by commanders who decided their own interpretation of the policy.

The compromise policy has also been deemed by many to be a failure. Altogether, more than 14,300 military personnel have been fired at an estimated overall taxpayer cost of $555 million, according to 2010 report by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law. Moreover, thousands of men and women lost careers, the military lost people with valuable skills, like Arabic linguists. Even Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, who is also a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said the law was a mistake.

Accordingly, Sept. 20 will be "a day of huge celebration," said SLDN's Sarvis. "Once we get beyond the long overdue celebration, I think things will be different, but not that dramatic a change."

"Some [ gay troops ] will come out in the first week or so and month. Others will think a while about whether they want to come out or not," Sarvis added. "They will be free to come out without fear of being fired. And that is what is important. Whether they elect to come out is their choice."

�2011 Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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