Much like the uncertainty over when the controversial policy might finally come to an end in the ranks of the U.S. military, there was a big question mark over what direction an upcoming discussion on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would take when it was scheduled last year by the ACLU.
But after a recent Congressional vote in favor of repealing an armed forces protocol regarding gay and lesbian troops, the June 12 talk in Thousand Oaks may take on a decidedly more optimistic tone.
“It’ll be a different discussion because it’ll allow us a real opportunity to see this repealed,” says James Gilliam.
Gilliam is an attorney recently appointed as deputy executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s regional branch, who’ll be one of two guest speakers at the Thousand Oaks Library’s Saturday afternoon gathering.
The round-table panel discussion, co-sponsored by the local divisions of the ACLU and Global Exchange, will also feature author and LGBT activist Zsa Zsa Gershick.
Known best for her Gay Old Girls and Secret Service: Untold Stories of Lesbians in the Military, Gershick’s participation in Saturday’s talk springs from the latter of her two books, a chronicle of interviews with lesbian servicewomen.
Gershick is also a veteran, and for five years, starting in 1978, served as a specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves. It was a full decade and a half before the Clinton-era DADT policy was adopted, preceded by years of the military’s concerns and fears over gays’ and lesbians’ effects on “unit cohesion” in the trenches.
It was also a difficult time to serve one’s country openly as a lesbian and be accepted by others, according to Gershick.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell doesn’t punish behavior, it punishes status,” she says. “Imagine having to endure this great burden … and have to focus on who knows I’m gay, who’s watching me, who might tell, who might ruin my chances for advancement. That’s a burden that shouldn’t exist.”
When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was formally introduced in 1993, it piggybacked on Bill Clinton’s promise to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, and required that their superiors not ask about their sexual orientation, and that the soldiers not tell, either.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t exist during Gershick’s stint in the armed forces, but the prejudices were the same for LGBT soldiers, she says.
“During my service, there was a prohibition on gay service,” remembered Gershick. “In the day, if you were suspected, the authorities had to prove you were gay.”
The witch hunt extends to those who aren’t gay, either, says Gilliam.
“This law is incredibly problematic for women. A woman who denies a man’s advances for a date will often be accused of being a lesbian,” he said. “How do you prove you’re not gay?”
These methods, for the most part, persisted as an unspoken rule for years, but it fostered an extreme homophobia in the military community, according to Gershick.
“Much of the fuss, I believe, comes from ignorance to who gays and lesbians truly are,” she said. “There’s the idea … that pandemonium will ensue. There’s also a very ignorant notion of gay people as vampiric predators who we can’t work or live beside.”
Since 1994 and the start of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, nearly 14,000 men and women have been discharged from the U.S. military for being gay or lesbian. Gershick estimates that those dismissals come at a price tag of $1 billion for the U.S. government to recruit new soldiers, to replace gay or lesbian soldiers barred from military service.
Ventura County has a strong military presence, including the naval base in Port Hueneme and Point Mugu. But there’s still an unkind view on gays in the military, spurnred by DADT.
“As conservative as our county is, I think it’s important to have this conversation because of misinformation to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” says Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance.
Several Alliance members are gay or lesbian veterans, said Smith, but they declined to speak for this article because of the stigma attached to the issue. But Smith, whose group is also sponsoring Saturday’s talk, remains positive.
“Constantly living with that dark cloud over your shoulder, serving in the military … Am I going to be found out today, tomorrow?” he asks. “That will go away with the overturning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
Following the May 30, 234-194 House vote recommending repeal of DADT, that could happen sooner rather than later. Gilliam and other online sources estimate that should the Senate, and then President Obama, sign off on the repeal, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell could be overturned completely by next year.
Despite the ambitious timeline, Saturday’s event, according to those involved, still carries a sense of urgency and advocacy.
“It’s far from a done deal at this point,” says Lee Gummerman of the Ventura County ACLU.
Smith calls it a “struggle for equality” no different from other historic civil and human rights problems.
“We know it’s going to take time (to repeal DADT),” he said, “no different from African American issues.”
Overturning the law won’t solve the issue completely, nor will it do away with homophobia, says Gershick. Awareness, she says, needs to continue.
“I would say, write their representatives in Washington. Write Mr. Obama a letter. Educate themselves about this issue separate from the fears.”
Free to the public, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell panel is 1-3 p.m. on June 12, at the Thousand Oaks Library, 1401 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks.