"Don't ask, don't tell" repeal affects nation, UNL campus

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Different perspectives on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal: (left to right) Vince Marasco is a gay student who says the repeal is a step in the right direction. Jason Johnsen is a member of the Nebraska National Guard and says the change will be different from past years. UNL professor Pete Maslowski thinks this repeal has historical – and present – values.

Story and photos by Megan Mandel, NewsNet Nebraska

On Sept. 20, 2011, President Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law, marking a new milestone in American civil rights. The repeal makes it possible for gays and lesbians to serve in the military, and prohibits officers from discharging them based on their sexual orientation.

As a gay student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, senior Vince Marasco said the repeal is a start in what is hopefully a long line of victories for the gay community.

“You can’t have a constitutional-supported discrimination,” Marasco said. “You just can’t. I think everyone sees it as a step in the right direction. It’s basically saying the government is no longer going to tolerate discrimination in the military. But we still have a couple of more steps to go.”

Former Air Force non-commissioned officer and current Nebraska National Guard Staff Sgt. Jason Johnsen said the new policy will take some getting used to, but he’s already seeing differences.

“It’s just kind of weird now,” Johnsen said. “We were previously trained to report them (gay and lesbian members) and now we have to treat them like anyone else. I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I think it’s the fact that we don’t deal with this all the time. It’s still a fairly new concept for some people.”

Out with the old, in with the new – and different

When the Clinton Administration enacted “don’t ask, don’t tell” on Dec. 21, 1993, openly gay and lesbian individuals became a taboo in the armed forces.

The policy stated that service members weren’t allowed to ask someone about his/her sexuality and in turn, that person couldn’t reveal their sexual preferences. Military personnel and superiors were prohibited from harassing or discriminating against gays and lesbians. If the military could prove a service member had engaged in inappropriate homosexual behavior, it resulted in an automatic discharge.

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This is the number of discharges since the policy was enacted in 1993. The repeal will eliminate discharges based on sexual orientation. Graphic courtesy Center for American Progress Action Fund

According to the New York Times, 13,000 gay and lesbian members have been discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell since 1993.

Johnsen remembers joining the Air Force in 2000 when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was kept under wraps and his unit was briefed overseas.

“You weren’t allowed to ask anyone about it at all,” Johnsen said. “We had chiefs of staff from the Marines and military come to Afghanistan and ask us about what we thought about the policy. At that point, we weren’t against homosexuals, but against them in the military.”

Estimates from the 2000 Census estimated that there were 36,000 gay and lesbians active in the military.

Ten years later, in September 2010, the policy started to unravel when a district court in California judge ruled the policy unconstitutional after a federal lawsuit. An appeals court overturned the ruling and the policy went under more scrutiny.

A congressional bill to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” became official on Sept. 20.

Pete Maslowski, a UNL military history professor, said that history has shown similar situations – and similar reactions.

“The thing that was most interesting to me is that we’d already had this debate twice before using different names,” Maslowski said. “One of the names was blacks. (People said) ‘You can’t have whites and blacks serving together or the military won’t be able to function.’ Nobody even thinks about a black colonel giving a white lieutenant orders anymore.”

Maslowski said the other was when women were allowed into the military.

“’Think what will happen if women come home in body bags or with limbs blown off?’… I mean, to me, the whole thing about gays in the military was a repetition of an old argument,” Maslowski said.

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This guide explained the old procedures explaining how to recognize homosexual behavior and how to report it under “don’t ask, don’t tell”.  Graphic: Courtesy U.S. Army Training Guide

New policy, new attitudes

The Washington Post estimated there were 66,000 gay and lesbian service members in 2010 and that number could grow with the repeal.

Maslowski said it usually takes society 10-15 years for something new to become more of the norm.

Johnsen agreed, but said that change isn’t necessarily easy in a structured military system.

“I’m happy the military is taking that step to accept the fact that these people are gay,” Johnsen said. “The military acts as leaders in society. But at the same time, it does create a distraction and a little bit of tension because we aren’t used to talking about it. The military is so male-dominant and it’s hard for people to react to that kind of situation.”

Marasco said it’s less important to focus less about what gay and lesbian service members practice behind closed doors and more about what they do on the front lines.

“Soldiers are there to fight for the freedoms this country has to offer,” Marasco said. “We have a volunteer military and if you’re looking for people to fight and you turn away a whole population away for a useless reason, that doesn’t make sense.”

Maslowski admits some in the military won’t change their opinions about gay and lesbian service members, but acceptance becomes key no matter what the individual viewpoints.

“The policy was so idiotic, it couldn’t bear examination. It was so absurd,” Maslowski said. “But evidently, military studies concluded that gays would be reasonably well-accepted even if they were known to be gay. And therefore, the policy was stupid. Well, what took them so long?”

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