FLASHBACK 1993: Gay vets and airmen talk life in the military closet | City Weekly REWIND | Salt Lake City Weekly

FLASHBACK 1993: Gay vets and airmen talk life in the military closet 

Don't Ask? Do Tell!

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In commemoration of City Weekly's 40th anniversary, we are digging into our archives to celebrate. Each week, we FLASHBACK to a story or column from our past in honor of four decades of local alt-journalism. Whether the names and issues are familiar or new, we are grateful to have this unique newspaper to contain them all.

Title: Don't Ask? Do Tell!
Author: Tom Walsh
Date: July 28, 1993

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[Ed. note: Active-duty, gay, Air Force personnel were interviewed for this story. Their names have been changed to protect their identities and careers.]

He looks the part—an airman with close cropped blond hair and a trim build. But the earring and his current location, sitting on a stool in a Salt Lake City gay bar, give him away. This young enlisted man leads a double life.

"Everyone has their little dark secrets, even Clinton has his," the airman says with a sly smile. But in order to survive in today's armed forces, Tony has taken on a swinging-single, heterosexual role that he plays in front of his co-workers at Hill Air Force Base with relish.

"I'm a great actor. My military role is, I'm a womanizer. They [co-workers] think I sleep with all kinds of women, so I'm a bachelor who goes out every weekend. I play along with it, it's really quite amusing to me."

"Tony" lives on base at Hill, but he would never dream of revealing his sexual identity or chancing a gay encounter on base. He's extremely cautious. If someone on base were to ask, he wouldn't tell. He's like thousands of gay and lesbian airmen, soldiers, sailors, marines and officers. Tony is living a lie because he's forced to.

The evolving drama that started with Clinton's campaign promise to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military has turned into a quagmire of compromise. The Commander in Chief has backed down from his controversial stand taken after his inauguration, and recently has allowed the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress to dictate a compromise. The so-called, "Don't ask (if you are gay)", and "Don't pursue (commanders shouldn't actively investigate)" policy has a number of holes in it that will probably lead to extended court battles. The memo from Secretary of Defense Les Aspin issued recently to clarify the issue seems to send a mixed message to military leaders accustomed to dealing with direct orders. It reads: "Sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter, and homosexual orientation is not a bar to service entry or continued service unless manifested by homosexual conduct." It's as if to say, "Be it, but don't do it, or say it." Aspin, when questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee, was unclear on whether a service member could state he is a homosexual. At one point during the hearing, Aspin said service people could admit to being gay, but could claim they were not engaging in homosexual conduct. William Rubenstein, a lawyer working on the issue for the ACLU, put it this way, "If I were advising a gay service member, I'd say this is an absolute 'don't tell' policy. This semantic ambiguity is a big game that might be fun for them, but it's serious for gay people." The bottom line is that if you're gay and want to serve in the military, you must keep your sexual orientation secret and remain celibate throughout your entire career. As a gay airman said when told about the celibacy part, "They're telling us to lie and be happy about it."

Confusion and questions about the new policy abound. Recruiters will be told not to ask, but what happens when a doctor gets an HIV positive blood sample? Can the doctor "ask," and should he tell? What about security clearance questions when national security outweighs the privacy issue in the military? Should investigators ask and then tell? What if a soldier witnesses what he thinks is homosexual conduct?

Those issues and questions will be thrashed over in the national arena for months, if not years, to come. But what do the gay enlisted personnel who work in the trenches, and their gay officers who provide leadership, think about the issues our civilian leaders are struggling with? And how will the lies they have to tell affect them? And what about their right to privacy and the pursuit of happiness? The gay airmen interviewed here say they will stay in the closet. In fact, they feel comfortable living behind that door. But they also feel that their rights are being abused, and that the ban must eventually be lifted.

This determined-looking man sitting before me is a proud member of the Air Force officer corps whose family has a long tradition of serving in the Armed Forces. "I love my country, and as far back as my family can trace its history, from the revolution on, every generation has served." He may now put an end to his link in the family chain of command by resigning his commission. He swore allegiance to the Constitution, and now feels betrayed by that promise. He's gay and feels that our government is, to some extent, denying his right to serve because of his sexual orientation. "It depresses me. It's my government telling me I'm not a real person. I don't count and I'm not part of the American fabric."

Captain "Robert Jones" has the bearing and intelligence that marks many officers. He speaks firmly, and there's no hint of anything that could be characterized as effeminate. At a first meeting, a casual observer might guess that he's a successful, straight, young professional. But this Hill Air Force Base officer tells me matter-of-factly that he is a gay military man and he believes that 14 percent to 15 percent of the personnel at Hill are gay or lesbian. "Gay people have been fighting and dying in every war," Jones says.

From Alexander the Great to Alexander Hamilton and throughout this century, it's been a military fact of life that homosexuals have served. In ancient Greece, there was a saying that "an army of lovers can't fail" because of homosexual soldiers' overriding concern in battle for their comrades. Jones says for the military to try and ignore the fact is ludicrous. "The military is predominantly male—you eat, train and sleep together as a big unit. Bu because America is so homophobic, they turn around and say, 'But for God's sake, don't screw around with each other.'"

The question then becomes, Can homosexuality exist in a military unit, and if so, can morale and unit cohesion be maintained?

The Pentagon says no.

"Captain Jones" says yes.

He is a junior officer with abilities that Air Force fighter pilots have come to rely on in times of conflict. Jones uses radar to become the long-range eyes of pilots extremely interested in where the enemy is lurking beyond the horizon. Jones identifies the opponent in the air and helps direct the air battle until the pilots have a visual on the enemy. He also gives authority to kill the bad guys. Sounds like someone you would want to have the upmost confidence in. Jones has been deployed to the Middle East, including a stint as an adviser to the Saudi Arabian government.

The captain came to terms with his sexual orientation while in the service, and he doesn't feel obligated to broadcast the fact that he's gay to the officers or enlisted personnel he works with. Three or four close friends in the Air Force are aware of his orientation. He doesn't like keeping his true identity a secret from his comrades and may resign over the issue of a continued ban, no matter how the compromise is worded. This officer feels "Don't ask, don't tell" is a "half-assed approach and sets a bad precedent," in an organization where following orders from the top is an imperative. Jones wants to know why Commander in Chief Clinton is negotiating with subordinates after he announced his intention to lift the ban. "What they're teaching us is if you don't like the order given you or your boss, you don't have to carry it out, just go behind his back. We should have saluted smartly and carried it out."

Jones sees the real essence of the ban as a clear-cut case of job discrimination. "Let me not have to lie. Let me do my job and judge me solely on my job performance and who I am as a soldier. Let me be like everyone else." A homosexual who performs his job well presents a dilemma to commanders. So, the Pentagon brings sexual and moral issues to the front in this uphill battle against deeply held attitudes and beliefs.

When deployed away from base, Jones bunks and showers with heterosexuals and claims that he has never perceived a problem with being in close quarters with straight males. Jones and other gay airmen interviewed fight the stereotype of homosexuals as sexual predators who are constantly on the make in the barracks. "I've never had any sort of sexual relationship with anybody in the military, with the exception of one female," Jones says. "That's not where my social life is; I've learned to keep it off base and out of the work place." Jones further states he has witnessed and heard about numerous incidents of sexual misconduct in the Air Force between people of the opposite sex.

Living a double life at Hill Air Force Base can make it impossible to join in on parties and other occasions where the social structure is dominated by heterosexuals. Jones couldn't see himself bringing a same-sex partner to an officers ball. Captain Jones had a four-year relationship with a man who wasn't able to socialize with other officers' wives. "He grew to resent the Air Force," Jones said of his partner. "He was basically a military spouse who didn't get any of the benefits." What Jones feared most while being overseas was being killed in a plane crash and having his lover not be notified by military authorities, a service heterosexuals take for granted. "I mean, my God, who's going to tell my boyfriend? He's never going to have officers walk up to the door and say, 'We're really sorry.' How would he find out?" Smith also believes that airmen should be able to designate a partner for benefits such as insurance and housing. In the new compromise, the military brass in the Pentagon have specifically denied homosexuals the right to marry and then designate a same-sex partner for benefits.

The Captain feels that a new civil rights issue is facing the United States that may have a historical perspective. He draws parallels with the desegregation of the armed services, which started fifty years ago. At the time, the move was fought by the Joint Chiefs and many white people, but Harry Truman gave the order anyway. Then, as now, there was resentment among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who claimed that the civilians were forcing the military into becoming a social laboratory and that the experimental mixing of the races would upset some soldiers and the overall morale. Jones says it then was up to the officers to tell racists that an integrated Army may not be right for them.

The captain argues that the military should reflect the democracy its soldiers are fighting to defend. "I can't imagine the military saying we represent the world's biggest democracy, but we're really kind of a private club and set our own rules. They're saying, 'We're the armed forces of everyone who's heterosexual in America.'"

Being a front-line player in war requires Jones to have a security clearance, which raises another issue—some commanders feel that homosexuals can become a target of blackmail and, therefore, a security risk. "Of all the major security breaches the country has had since the 1930s, all have involved heterosexuals," Jones says. "So, that blows that theory out of the water. The best defense against that is allowing people to openly express their own sexual orientation, that would automatically do away with the threat of blackmail."

The captain fears that some day he'll be identified as a homosexual and if he is asked, he'll be forced to lie. Despite the recent adjustments in regulations, the fear of a witch hunt is well-founded. In his recent best selling non-fiction book, Conduct Unbecoming, author Randy Shilts documents hundreds of stories of the persecution of gays and lesbians who were chased out of the Armed Services during the past 30 years. Captain Jones has first-hand knowledge of a case where a person's civil liberties were violated by investigators from the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), who conducted a fierce purge. OSI investigators work undercover to catch personnel violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice—everything from stealing property to secrets. But according to Shilts' book, and a number of gay veterans interviewed, gay witch hunts were common until a few months ago. Shilts has documented numerous investigations where suspected homosexuals had their phones tapped, mail opened and were followed. The idea was to catch one homosexual and get him or her to identify every other gay or lesbian on the base. "Highly coercive and intimidating tactics," according to Captain Jones. "Like 'If you don't turn in your friends, we'll get you on using drugs,' and this person wasn't using. Then they said, 'We'll charge you with being in a drug ring and dereliction of duty.'"

Preparedness is a motto commonly heard in the military in regards to defending our country. Captain Jones says he wants to stay in the Air Force and defend the Constitution, as he has sworn to do. His heart is with the Constitution, but in his mind he's ready to leave.

click to enlarge Steven Isaacks
  • Steven Isaacks

Steven Isaacks (his real name) was living a lie after he marked an Air Force recruiting questionnaire in 1984. The 28-year-old was admittedly nervous when he saw the question, "Have you engaged in homosexual acts?" His father was an Army recruiter, so he knew the consequences of answering truthfully. In his case, he wouldn't get the job. So, he lied.

An athletically built young man with thin blond hair, he looks like a lot of Utahns of Scandinavian descent. But Isaacks came here from Las Vegas after being ejected from his Air Force career as an F-15 fighter jet technician.

Isaacks began his military service as a confused young man. After a few homosexual encounters he fought back the idea he was gay by going out on dates with women. He struggled with his sexuality partly out of fear of expulsion from the Air Force. "I was so afraid of the military because they could kick me out for this, it just kept me in a state of confusion. Then, after I'd been in six years and it kept happening, I figured it wasn't just a phase anymore." He soon realized his roommate at the base housing was gay and after a couple of sexual contacts with him in private, things turned ugly.

"Then I started seeing someone else; he [the roommate] met this person and he was jealous because he couldn't have me." The roommate went to the OSI and told investigators he had witnessed homosexual acts involving Isaacks.

Sgt. Isaacks was faced with this choice. Fight it out in court, reveal his homosexuality, and probably get a dishonorable discharge; or, give up his career, get a general discharge, and keep his benefits. Rather than "come out" to his military family, Isaacks did what most of the accused do: he took the least painful way out.

But now, Isaacks has recovered from the embarrassment and depression that follows losing your livelihood. He "came out" to his parents because he was tired of lying about himself. He's working, going to college, and feels better about himself now that he's out of the military and "out" period. The former sergeant is launching a counter-attack against the Air Force. Isaacks wants justice in the form of an honorable discharge after years of service. He claims that his job performance was the best it could be and that he often volunteered for jobs such as dorm counselor and sports representative.

"I know I did a good job above and beyond the call of duty and I deserve it. Whether I am gay or not had nothing to do with my job. Ninety percent of us do well in the military. Because of what we are, we try harder to prove we can get the job done." Isaacks claims that there's a high percentage of gays in the top secret Stealth program at his former base. He says the rigorous testing indicates that only the best workers get in. Further evidence of his point is Sergeant Joe Zuniga, the 6th Army's 1992 Soldier of the Year. He came out during the "March on Washington" this past spring.

Isaacks spent an entire year in Colorado, training to become an avionics troubleshooter on the F-15. That specific training, coupled with an above average worker, had to be worth plenty to the Air Force.

People in and out of the Armed Services were shocked to hear of a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study that detailed the cost of removing homosexuals from the military and training their replacements. On the average, the Department of Defense expels 1,500 men and women annually for homosexuality, at a cost of more than $22 million per year. That does not include legal and investigation-related costs. The total bill could run $40 to $50 million a year during the 1980s, according to some estimates.

One of those who was shaken down to his conservative core by the government's own study was 84-year-old Barry Goldwater. Goldwater served as a general in the Air Force Reserves, and was also a former U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate. In a recent editorial favoring a complete lift of the ban, Goldwater wrote, "...most Americans should be shocked to know that while the country's economy is going down the tubes, the military wasted a half-billion dollars over the past decade chasing down gays and running them out of the service."

While Clinton points to his "Don't pursue" portion of the compromise as a step forward, it wouldn't have kept Steven Isaacks on the job because he was accused of conduct violations, even though they were private encounters between two consenting adults. Isaacks is now asking the Defense Department for a civilian review of his discharge.

Matters such as this will ultimately end up in the courts, and observers see battles on numerous fronts over issues of free speech, rights to privacy, and equal application of the law.

But the real arena for change may be political, and even in Utah gays are learning how the game is played.

He walks up looking like Rambo with a fashionable attitude. The khaki-green undershirt, camouflage makeup, and M-16 accessory are just the thing for the Gay, Lesbian, and Bi-sexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) "End the Ban" fund-raising barbeque and uniform costume party. These gay men look more comfortable with who and what they are. They are not afraid to hug each other in public.

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About 30 openly gay veterans and supporters meet on a regular basis in Salt Lake City to plot political and media strategy in their local battle against the ban. These veterans are more radical and vocal about protesting and getting recognition than most active duty people we spoke with. In a pre-meeting discussion of possible tactics, group leader Ron Shelby talks of a National Coming Out Day for gay people in the military. "They should say 'I'm gay and I want to stay.' It would totally destroy the military machine if they had to investigate and remove from duty everyone who came out."

When the meeting begins, only eleven people show up on this Sunday afternoon. One man has on a Navy uniform with a U.S.S. Carl Vinson ship patch on his shoulder. There are no women veterans in the group.

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They will continue to fight for a total lift of the ban and ask the Utah congressional delegation to not put any part of the ban into law. A representative for the group says they got the worst reception from Democratic Congressman Bill Orton. The national lobbying arm, called the Campaign for Military Service (CMS), was refused a meeting. Orton's staff told CMS they were meeting with the Utah-based GLBVA and didn't need to hear from both groups. Chris Ryan, one of the founders of GLBVA, said the national group thought "it was a lame excuse and Orton was the only congressman they know of who was doing this." So, GLBVA members were surprised when they met with Orton's staff here in Utah to find that they seemed to support a lifting of the ban. "His staff was agreeing with us to make us happy. Politically, gays are pretty powerful in the Democratic party. But we won't support him in his nomination run for Senate against Hatch." Ryan says Hatch has a 47 percent positive voting record on gay issues. Orton has a 17 percent record. Many gays feel that this issue of lifting the ban will determine how they will vote in the near future. "I'll vote for Hatch," Ryan said.

The group says it is here for the duration of the issue and will attack anyone who tries to ignore their existence. The GLBVA is expecting to be turned down when they apply to march in the Veterans Day parade on November 11. They're ready to go to court and seek an injunction to allow them to march next to other veterans.

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This group is way out of the closet for a reason. "We want to be out enough so people see all of their stereotypes about being gay are wrong. It will be tough for a straight vet to come up to a gay vet, who's served honorably, and say, 'You don't belong.'"

Franklin Abbott has the slow pattern of speech of a man from Georgia and a kindly, accepting manner that a psychotherapist needs. He is a clinical social worker who has written about gay mental health issues and is himself gay. Abbott was in Salt Lake City to lecture to therapists on dealing with homophobia in clinical practice.

As far as the fear that some military people have of gays hitting on them in the barracks, Abbott considers the issue and then sits back and smiles, "There's a mistaken belief that a lot of straight men have, and it's that any gay man would find any straight man attactive, and this is just not so." In many kinds of phobia, there's a fear of contagion. "Like, if I touch you, you're going to turn into a homosexual, and that's obviously not true," he said. Homosexuality in the military isn't going to be anymore pervasive than it is, whether it's publicly accepted or not according to Abbott.

This therapist says living a duplicitous life, being able to represent oneself as other than who you are, is a survival technique gay people learn from adolescence on. But this game of deception, being forced on some in the military, is at the least distracting and can become destructive. Abbott says whenever you tell lies about yourself, you hear those lies and start to believe them. "That manifests itself in lesbian and gay men as internal homophobia that can be destructive in relationships and in terms of advancing in the world. It can also lead into substance abuse, and gays are more suicide-prone, in part because of the homophobia from without and from within."

Despite the arguments against it, the Pentagon is standing its ground on the ban, saying it's necessary for "unit cohesion" and "rank and command." But these types of monumental changes come in stages, and as one gay man pointed out, the dialogue has shifted from "Do we lift the ban?" to "How do we lift the ban?" Most of the active-duty and veteran gay military men we talked to believe that it will be a war of attrition, and the balance of power will shift. They believe that one day, within a few years, the ban will be lifted. One veteran protesting against the ban says he looks forward to the day when he'll be able to look back and tell people he was a part of history, a history being built by people like Jones.

After a discussion of the issues of rights, history, politics and psychological effects, Captain Jones says even if Clinton were to lift the ban, he would not reveal his sexual identity. He was asked why would he want to remain on the sidelines watching this historical struggle.

For the simple reason that his sexuality is nobody's business but his own.

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