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'Don't Ask, Don'tTell' ends, stories remain — Service members tell of experiences
Medical corpsman Josh Masters didn’t decide to give up his career in the Navy until the second time the Navy tried to dishonorably discharge him for being gay.
The first time, he was just back from the war in Iraq, and his first-line leader, a Marine corporal, told the inquiry board convened that he didn’t care if corpsman Masters “was as gay as butterflies and rainbows,” and that he’d take a hundred more Marines just like him.
That time, the Corps went after him after a fellow service member informed on Masters’ after reading an email over his shoulder. The informant suspected the “I love you” on the screen came from another man, and reported him to command. Fortunately for Masters, his team leader’s words of support on his character were enough and the investigation stopped there.
“My marines that had to trust me with their lives basically didn’t care,” said Masters. “The only thing that they cared about was whether I could do my job or not.”
At its heart, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a development upon previously enacted Department of Defense regulations making homosexuality punishable by discharge. It didn’t change the permissibility of homosexuality, but sought to give gay and lesbian service members a kind of second-class protection: they could serve, as long as they kept their personal lives secret, according to multiple sources.
The ‘Don’t Ask’ part was what tripped the Navy up in Masters’ case. Under the policy, privacy was supposed to be guaranteed those willing to keep their secrets. Masters, at least then, was willing to keep his.
But when the officer asked him, over and over, in front of a board of inquiry, whether he was having boyfriend problems, or if he wanted to talk about his boyfriend, or if he missed his boyfriend, the officer was breaking the rules.
That was the ‘Don’t Tell’ part – gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and airmen were prevented from talking about their sexuality, or doing anything else that ‘told’ about it, like visiting a gay bar, or being seen kissing or holding hands in public. Or receiving letters at a naval base or ship from a same-sex partner. Or, on a phone call during a deployment, cramped into a tight space where others could know who you were talking to, telling the wrong person you loved them. Or bringing a child to a function, where that child could say the wrong thing.
One retired area Coast Guardsman, who served for 15 years until he was discharged in 1995 under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for being bisexual, said he didn’t experience the ban itself as oppressive, but rather as something he just had to deal with during his service.
Today, he is a police officer with a local department, but asked to remain anonymous. He’s relatively closeted at work because he said he fears prosecutors might unearth the information and use it against him during a trial, or that someone he had to question or arrest might use it against him on the street.
The discharge, he said, took almost seven months, months longer than the typical four-week discharge process under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, because he was bisexual and had a girlfriend.
“It was obvious to all involved that I wasn’t actually gay,” he said. “It was somewhat difficult for them to figure out.”
Adding to his frustration, he said, is the fact that today he knows that the way he was discharged was illegal under DADT, because the first step was his commanding officer asking him, after overhearing a remark, if he was gay.
“It was the way it was, the normal course of action. The cost of doing business,” he said of hiding his sexuality during his time in the Coast Guard. “I had to have short hair. I couldn’t tell people I was bisexual. Same thing.”
Masters joined the Navy at 17, angry about 9/11 and wanting to serve. His grandfather and great-grandfather served in the military, making it also a family tradition that he wanted to be part of. Trained as a medical corpsman, then sent to Camp Lejeune, Masters was attached to a Marine Corps battalion.
In March 2005 he deployed to Iraq with that battalion.
Masters’ inquiry was carried out, and wheels were set in motion to dishonorably discharge him.
The military gave up only at the last minute. Masters and advocates from the Service Members’ Legal Defense Fund protested the fact that when the inquiry was convened, a member of the panel had asked, over and over, questions obviously intended to elicit a response from masters about his sexuality.
In the beginning, Masters wanted to stay in the military, and planned for a career in the Navy. Eventually, though, Masters took to carrying a letter in his wallet, so that he would have it ready to turn in just in case the stress of hiding became too much.
“It sucked every day. I would get letters from my partner every day, and he couldn’t put his name on them,” said Masters. “He talked about he missed me and how he loved me, but gender pronouns couldn’t be used. And that was life for us.”
One Kitsap resident who is an active duty senior chief in the Navy, agreed to speak anonymously about his experiences. Even though the policy is being lifted, he said, it’s still technically in effect, and while he said he didn’t think it could be extended, he said he still worries that homosexuality carries a stigma in the Navy workplace.
During his 13-year career, he has hidden his sexuality from fellow service members.
Although he identified as gay when he joined the military, he decided that covering up his personal life was something he could deal with.
Having participated in ROTC during high school, he said he felt he knew what to expect.
“I chose it. I knew when I raised my right hand to take the oath that I was choosing to live that life.”
After so many years in the closet at work, he said it’s hard to know whether or not it has had a permanent effect.
“I’ve suppressed it for so many years that it’s hard to say,” he said. “I have concerns with the professionalism. If I tell one person on the boat it’s going to go throughout the boat. I’m not naïve, some people are going to have a problem with it.”