Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Last night the President said the following in the State of the Union (in case you missed it)

"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do."

Don't ask, don't tell policies are not limited to the military, and they are more about the idea of coming out, which is far more than saying, "I'm gay!" to your friends and everyone you meet on the street. While there is certainly an aspect of that (or at least having that freedom to do, should you feel compelled), it's really about being a whole person to whole people all around you. DADT policies inhibit that room, certainly. There are those who say "You shouldn't let one aspect of your personality define you, and that's what coming out does." I disagree with that.

Our identities are multifaceted, but certainly as sexual people, our sexuality is a part of that. As loving people, our relationships are very much parts of our identity. By not being able to come out to one's peers -- in any group, not just the military -- one has to constantly walk on egg shells about what they do in their spare time, which establishments they frequent, what movies they see, and which artists they listen to. Some of that is certainly stereo-types, but in a DADT construct, if one appears to be gay, s/he may be asked (even in violation of the policy).

If a queerperson finds him/herself in a relationship with someone of the same sex, DADT precludes their ever mentioning that. If someone is in basic or deployed and gets a letter from his boyfriend or from her partner of however many years, those two people have to say it's from a friend. During time back from deployment, those people have to say they're going to spend time with a friend. Meanwhile, their heterosexual counterparts can talk about the stress that distance is putting on their relationships and be honest about them as romantic relationships, can get excited about having gotten a letter from their wife that talks about ______.

Coming out isn't about saying, "Look at me, this is my identity, and it's the only thing about me!" It's about being fully honest and giving full disclosure. It's about a gay man being able to say "I'm getting to see my boyfriend after six months away," versus being shamed into hiding the truth, so telling a half-truth and misleading others by his silence. Or if not being shamed, being exactly who he is with enough between the lines to see if they want to, but sometimes working himself into a frenzy for fear that others will find out and ask -- and he won't be comfortable telling an outright lie. DADT limits people who want to be supportive, too. People who can read between the lines might want to say, "I know someone else who's done the coming out thing. You're safe with me," but would violate DADT and could border on sexual harassment.

And don't ask, don't tell policies aren't just existent in the military (although I know innumerable LGTB people who are serving, know veterans who talk of their experience as heterosexuals knowing that there was a gay bar right of post at almost off of their assignments, know people serving now who either have an atmosphere where their gay colleagues can be open or can read between the lines and want to be supportive). They exist in schools, particularly in systems that have discriminatory hiring/work practices. There are gay teachers who can't say anything to anyone (again, not an announcement to students, but bitching about relationships in faculty lounges during lunch) for fear of losing their jobs. There are people in discernment to be clergy in many Christian denominations where being gay is okay until you become "self-avowed," or it's okay for you to live your life, but it can't be talked about.

Do you fall into any of these categories? Friend or colleague of a closeted queer person in a system with a don't ask, don't tell reality? Person living in don't ask don't tell? If you won't be directly adversely affected by it (or if you will and are comfortable with that), what are you doing to change the system? Calling bishops, standing committees, school boards and congress people? Or watching your friends hide parts of their lives that are important to them while you take what's afforded to you as a heterosexual for granted?


  1. Hello Joseph
    I couldn't agree with you more, and must say that having read your bio, I was very plesantly surprised to read that you have such a well-rounded understanding of this issue. (a bit of my own prejudice/bias at work - reacting to reading about your religious affiliations).
    I am an openly gay teacher in a secondary school in Melbourne Australia, and whilst it is easy in a government school for teachers to be out amongst the staff, very few feel comfortable being out to the student body.

    Interestingly our State Governement have recently passed laws that allow religious groups to defy legislation outlawing descrimination and equal opportunities - so teachers in these schools have even more to fear now than they did before.

    I am fully aware that there are many schools even here in Melbourne where it would be almost suicidal to announce one's sexual orientation to the students. I agree with you whole-heartedly that this isn't a circumstance that we should be just accepting.

    I find it depressing that in a school such as my own, where being out to the student body isn't really a problem, that there is still a prevailing paradigm of 'dont ask don't tell'.

    When I first arrived at this school 3 years ago, I advised the management team that I would be telling my students that I was gay, and they were quite happy to support me. I told them that the reason I was letting them know was because "forearmed - forewarned" - if they were to receive complaints from parents at least they wouldn't be taken by surprise. Secondly I told them that my reasoning behind telling my students was that gay and lesbian students need role models just as much as any other kid does. I didn't necessarily need to know who the gay and lesbian students are but it would be good for them to know that there was someone on the staff that was living a very happy life as a gay person.

    Despite all of this, my school still has a long way to go in terms of stamping out homophobia, and my first action for this year is to try and get staff to address the issue of stopping students from using the word Gay as derogatory term.

    best wishes to you
    Gregg Wilson

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