We Ask & We Tell, But It’s Still Hard To Be Queer In The Military

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Kyle and I patrolled the Quantico woods, our faces smeared with camouflage grease paint, uniforms soaked with mud. It was 2013, day three of a week-long training exercise in which our company learned infantry tactics by stalking our peers through dense, tangled underbrush. Kyle and I were the recon element, scouting the defenses of “the enemy.” 
It was hot and wet; Virginia in spring. We wore ill-fitting Kevlar helmets and heavy armored vests over our canvas uniforms. I carried an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a belt-fed light machine gun that weighs more than 20 pounds fully loaded. We followed our compasses to an established gridpoint by hacking our way through thorny bushes over miles of hilly terrain — there was no path. To distract ourselves from the misery, we passed the time talking about something more pleasant: our girlfriends. I had just moved in with mine, and Kyle was about to propose to his. 
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At a distance, we looked indistinguishable: two filthy Marines, identical in uniform, shooting the shit. But under the grease paint and gear, we couldn’t be more different. 
Kyle was a good old Southern boy, who came from a conservative family, full of veterans. He played on the golf team in college, crushed beers with his frat on the weekends, and non-ironically wore a popped-collar polo out to bars on Friday nights. His girlfriend? A former cheerleader, of course. I was raised by two Hindu vegetarian pacifists in Southern California; I’d studied abroad in Africa, and after college worked as a professional human rights advocate. I was — I am — a gay woman. When I came out to my parents, they told me they loved me no matter what. When I told them I was joining the Marine Corps, my dad looked at me, stunned, and said, “These are not the values we raised you with.”   
Yet despite our cultural differences, Kyle and I were united by our desire to serve. As we emerged from the treeline into a clearing, he looked me in the eye and said, “You know Goldie, I thought all lesbians were super butch. You’re not like that.” I laughed, startled, and looked down at myself: unshowered, covered in mud, carrying a machine gun, sporting a high-and-tight haircut, a chunk of tobacco tucked into my lip.
“Kyle, how could I be more butch?I asked him, incredulously.
“You know what I mean,” he replied. “We’re, like, friends.” 
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It was an imperfect expression from someone who had limited vocabulary around gender identity, orientation, and expression. But I understood what he meant. “Butch” to Kyle meant someone completely different, alien to him. A description that didn’t apply to me, a fellow Marine, his friend. He meant it as a compliment, an expression of shared understanding.
Institutions, like society, are imperfect, and the military is certainly no exception. But unlike almost any other institution in America today, the military is a place where race, class, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and country of origin can all be subsumed by a larger sense of shared identity. 
This is not to say that institutional racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia have been eradicated, or that their presence should be ignored. 
But the military experience is unique in that it is designed to make everyone uncomfortable. People are pushed to their limits and thrown together in high-stress environments. Whether participating in a training exercise in the freezing rain, being subjected to strict (and often inane) bureaucracy, deploying into conflict zones, or having to spend long periods away from family, the military experience breeds a sense of mutual understanding borne from shared misery. That unique understanding can create trust between people — as it had between Kyle and me — who might never have otherwise forged a relationship. 
Beyond my parents’ initial disapproval, my journey into the Marine Corps wasn’t a typical one. Before joining, I spent seven years between Washington, D.C. and Africa, working for organizations focused on protecting civilians from genocide and mass atrocity in places including Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 
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There were times when we, the human rights community, advocated for solutions that included the U.S. military, such as enforcing a no-fly zone over a vulnerable region. Unsurprisingly, I met very few people who could translate effectively between the development, diplomatic, and defense communities. The result was often ineffective coordination — bureaucratic-speak for lives lost. Despite having a strong progressive worldview, the idea of serving in the military was planted in my mind as a way that I could fill that gap, becoming a more effective advocate and build a safer and more equitable world. 
But with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in place, the military didn’t seem like the right fit for me. Since 1993, the Department of Defense policy prohibited LGBTQ+ people from serving openly in the armed forces, and sent a message that discrimination was tolerated. Over the nearly two decades that the policy was in place, more than 13,000 service members were discharged, losing their careers; often, the military benefits they had earned; and in many cases, their sense of identity and purpose. 

It felt absurd that in order to join an institution that prided itself on integrity, I would have to effectively lie. 

JANESSA GOLDBECK
Then in 2010, Congress passed legislation authorizing the Department of Defense to begin a process to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. While it allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members to serve openly, transgender service members were still banned from serving
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A few months later, I signed a contract with the United States Marine Corps. The repeal had not yet been certified; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was officially still in place. That meant that my military contract contained a document I had to sign pledging to never do or say anything openly homosexual. That included “touching a person of your same sex or allowing such a person to touch you for the purposes of satisfying sexual desires. (For example, hand-holding or kissing, or other physical contact of a sexual nature.)” It was an Orwellian document, and it felt absurd that in order to join an institution that prided itself on integrity, I would have to effectively lie. 
In August 2011, I shipped off to Officer Candidates School. On top of my nervousness about the physical and cultural challenges ahead, the fear of being outed and administratively discharged weighed heavily on me. Having lived as an out, gay person since the age of 19, at 26 years old I was not accustomed to having to omit information about who I was dating or hide pronouns. Despite wanting to connect with my peers, I was guarded. I avoided talking about my personal life. There were clearly other queer women in my platoon, but our interactions were careful — a shared, unspoken understanding that we should not get too friendly and risk starting a rumor. 
A few weeks into our initial training, we were allowed to take “liberty.” This meant we could escape the base for a few hours, eat a hot meal of our own choosing, and, most importantly, get our cell phones back. Scrolling through my texts, I learned that the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had been certified a few days before, formally ending the policy. The cloud that had hovered over me since I arrived at Quantico lifted. I felt the weight of the moment — the sacrifice of so many others who had marched, died, lost their careers and their families so that I could have the freedom to choose my own path. 
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As news of the repeal rippled through the squad bay, one of the other officer candidates standing nearby asked me loudly, with friendly laughter in her voice, “Goldbeck, can I ask you a question?” I was certain that plenty of women in the platoon suspected I was gay already, but up until that point, it was not something I could not legally say out loud. But now, with the repeal fully implemented, it didn’t matter.
I replied, “Sure, I'll tell you the answer.” With everyone listening, she asked, "Are you gay, Goldbeck?" I looked her dead in the eye, smiled, and responded, "Hell yes I am!" Everyone cracked up and a few girls gave me high fives. Then we hustled to get out the door and off base for some liberty. The moment mattered a lot, and it didn’t matter at all.  I had never felt more free. 
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell allowed me to bring my whole self to my job. As a woman in an institution that is overwhelmingly male, it enabled me to break down stereotypes and misperceptions about gender and orientation simply by doing my job. As a leader, it allowed me to proactively seek out and mentor young LGBTQ+ Marines and Sailors, many of whom had never had a queer authority figure in their life. It allowed me the authenticity and authority to speak out against discriminatory comments or policies that I encountered within the Corps and armed forces, and to work to change them. 
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With everyone listening, she asked,
"Are you gay, Goldbeck?" I looked her dead in the eye, smiled, and responded, "Hell yes I am!"

Janessa Goldbeck
One such policy was the Combat Exclusion Policy, which barred women from holding certain combat arms roles in the military that were deemed too risky or dangerous.  By the time I got to my second Marine Corps school, the Secretary of Defense had ordered a review of the policy. In order to determine whether women could be successfully integrated into infantry units, female second lieutenants could volunteer to attend the Infantry Officer’s Course (IOC) — although if we graduated, we still couldn't be infantry officers
A few women had volunteered so far, but none had passed. IOC is a physically and mentally grueling course. I wanted to volunteer too. I wanted decision-makers to know that there were women like me out there who wanted the job. 
But the political climate around the issue of women in the infantry was, to put it mildly, not great. Every comment section of any article printed about the issue was riddled with derisive comments and in some cases, unmitigated rage. 
Worse than the online hate, though, was the perception among my peers that whenever women attempted IOC, the instructors intentionally made the course harder. 
Whether or not it was true, this rumor was damaging in more ways than one. First was the implication that instructors wanted women to fail in order to uphold a sexist policy that restricted the types of jobs women were allowed to hold in the Marine Corps. But it also created discord between peers: If you were a female lieutenant, and you really cared about Marines, then why would you want to put your brothers through a worse hell just to prove a point? 
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So, although I wanted nothing more than to become an infantry officer, I seriously questioned whether it was the right thing to do.
The night before I had to decide whether or not to volunteer, some members of my platoon and I were grilling hot dogs outside of our barracks. Many of the guys were already slated to start IOC in just a few weeks. Someone asked me whether or not I had made up my mind. I started to voice my concerns, specifically about making it harder on my friends. 
My friend John, one of those Marines that everyone else implicitly looks up to, threw down his tongs and looked me square in the eye. In front of this group of hard-charging, highly competitive, alpha dog Second Lieutenants, he said firmly, “Goldy, we are a team. IOC is a hard school. And if it’s harder because you’re there with us, then we’re harder for getting through it together. You are coming with us.” 
I’m not sure that all of those guys felt that way, but from that moment on, every one of them had my back. John knew my motivations were the same as his. He knew we shared an ethos. And while I didn’t pass the school, that moment solidified not only our friendship, but a commitment to hold each other accountable for living our values through our actions. 
The Combat Exclusion Policy was lifted in 2013, and at the end of 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter formally opened up all jobs in the military for those qualified to do them, regardless of gender. 
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Years later, when John became an instructor at the Basic School, he called, excited to tell me about the female lieutenant in his company who he was mentoring, along with a handful of other highly capable young men, in preparation for IOC. That lieutenant would go on to become the first female infantry officer in the Marine Corps, graduating alongside 87 of her male peers from a class that began with 131 students. 
I can’t say definitively how being closeted in the military would have affected my confidence, risk tolerance, or ability to build strong, authentic friendships. I assume that it would have had a tremendous negative impact. The freedom to bring my whole self to the equation — to take risks, to be vulnerable, and to connect with others — allowed me the opportunity to thrive  in my Marine Corps career.
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Those freedoms do not currently exist for all of those who serve, and our armed forces are weaker as a result. In 2016, under President Obama and Ash Carter, the Pentagon lifted the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military, acknowledging that it is in the military’s best interest to recruit and retain the best troops, regardless of their gender identity. Transgender people would no longer be discharged or barred from serving because of their gender identity. 
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But in July 2017, President Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military via a series of tweets. While transgender troops who had come out after the ban was lifted in 2016 waited in anxious limbo for clarification about their rights, the administration dragged their feet, taking months to follow up with details. Finally, they issued implementation recommendations that would prohibit transgender people from joining the military at all and bar anyone currently serving from transitioning genders
While there have been multiple lawsuits and legislative efforts to overturn the ban, in 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Defense could implement it while litigation continues. Today, there are as many as 10,790 transgender troops serving under this discriminatory policy. 

No pride for some of us without
liberation for all of us.

Marsha P. Johnson
Of course, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t the only marginalizing factor for troops. More than half of minority active-duty troops — 53% — say they’ve personally witnessed acts of racism in the past few months, according to a survey by Military Times.  The incidents described in the survey ranged from racist language and discriminatory attitudes to seeing graffiti of swastikas or Ku Klux Klan stickers.
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Military sexual trauma continues to be rampant throughout the ranks, disproportionately affecting women who serve. In 2018, the Marine Corps had the highest rates of reported military sexual assault of any service branch, and a 20% increase in sexual assault reports from the previous year.
Future generations may look back on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as a watershed moment in the nation’s history. But only if we acknowledge that there is more work to be done in the fight for true equality. 
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my time spent working in human rights is to let individuals and communities speak for themselves. It’s important for those with privilege to step back, create space, and amplify the voices of the marginalized, instead of speaking for them. But today, there are thousands of transgender and nonbinary people serving our country who cannot advocate openly for themselves for fear of reprisal.
There are thousands of LGBTQ+ veterans who can. It’s simply not enough for those of us who benefited from the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to celebrate how far we have come. In the words of Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender activist for LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
It’s time for those of us who have served to step up and voice our support for the rights of transgender and nonbinary people in uniform. We can do that by financially supporting organizations like SPART*A, which advocates for actively serving transgender military members, veterans, and their families. We can also share the stories of transgender service members and educate our communities on the value they bring to our military; there are many profiles in courage on SPART*A’s website.  And we can call or write our members of Congress and let them know that this year’s National Defense Authorization Act must authorize open service for transgender troops. 
This Pride, let’s turn our commemoration into action. Let’s work to ensure that all who want to serve have the opportunity to do so, and that all who already serve have the freedom to be themselves. Our military, and our nation, will be stronger for it.  

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