When Thang Nguyen, a U.S. Navy ensign, came out to his commanding officer in a letter last December, he had every reason to expect an immediate discharge. After all, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was still firmly in place. Even though President Bush authorized the Pentagon to issue a "stop-loss" order, which suspended most other military discharges just prior to launching the war on terrorism, gay discharges were to continue.
For 31-year-old Nguyen, who had emigrated from Vietnam at age 10 and realized a long-standing ambition to serve in the U.S. armed forces, the decision to end his career was not an easy one. But after years of witnessing homophobic slurs and threats--including hearing "officers saying that gays should be imprisoned ... shot and ... tortured"--Nguyen no longer felt safe and concluded he had no choice but to get out.
In his letter he detailed his experiences and expressed his fear that by staying closeted in the military he would always be "at risk of investigation, involuntary discharge, and even criminal prosecution." Reluctantly, he requested to be discharged.
The request, to Nguyen's surprise, was denied. A letter from his commanding officer explained that Nguyen's simply stating his sexual orientation, without providing evidence that he is likely to engage in "homosexual acts," did not constitute a reason for separation.
It was a new twist to "don't ask, don't tell" for Nguyen's lawyer Sharra E. Greer, who also is legal director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has been fighting the military's antigay policy since its inception in 1994. "We would love it if that really were the case," she says. "But that has not been regulation up until this point, and it certainly is not the statute, which does qualify a statement of your [homosexuality] as a homosexual act."
Presumably, the policy would leave little room for personal discretion. Yet increasingly, commanding officers have been creatively reinterpreting "don't ask, don't tell" in an apparent effort to retain gay and lesbian service members.
Take the case of 32-year-old Roy Hill, a naval hospitalman who came out to his commanding officer in a letter in May. A tall, muscular man who has participated in Ironman competitions, Hill was not himself a target of harassment because he was not perceived to be gay. "And in the military it's those who are perceived as gay who suffer the harassment, mistreatment, and in some cases, worse events," he says.
But during his three years of service he says he witnessed antigay hostility in every command and was forced to keep silent about his own sexual orientation. In his first tour of duty, Hill says, one female member of the company who was "not ultrafeminine and appeared to be gay" was the constant target of inflammatory jokes and was consistently called "bull dyke."
Bearing witness to such events and seeing commanding officers turn a blind eye turns closeted straight-looking soldiers into silent coconspirators, Hill says. And that took an emotional toll on him, as did his continued denial of his own identity. "I had learned a lot about myself and wanted to stay truer to who I am and accepting of who I am," he says.
Eventually the pressure led to Hill coming out to his commanding officer. He expected, as Nguyen did, to be discharged, but his commanding officer decided otherwise. In explaining the decision to retain Hill, Lt. Col. T.L. Miller said that homosexual conduct is grounds for separation only if the commanding officer has received "credible evidence of such conduct." Hill's lawyer, SLDN's Paula Neira, was informed that naval policy allowed for retaining an openly gay service member "for the good of the service."
That clause, however vague, does exist. But given that "don't ask, don't tell" is predicated on the notion that homosexuality and military service are incompatible, it's a loophole not often used. …