Gay Ex-Officers Say 'Don't Ask' Doesn't Work

New York Times
December 10, 2003

WASHINGTON D.C. Three retired military officers, two generals and an admiral who have been among the most senior uniformed officers to criticize the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for homosexuals in the military, disclosed on Tuesday that they are gay.

The three, Brig. Gen. Keith H. Kerr and Brig. Gen. Virgil A. Richard, both of the Army, and Rear Adm. Alan M. Steinman of the Coast Guard, said the policy had been ineffective and undermined the military's core values: truth, honor, dignity, respect and integrity.

They said they had been forced to lie to their friends, family and colleagues to serve their country. In doing so, they said, they had to evade and deceive others about a natural part of their identity.

The officers said that they were the first generals and admiral to come out publicly and that they hoped that others would follow.

They are the highest-ranking military officers to acknowledge that they are gay. Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer was discharged from the Washington State National Guard in 1992 for being a lesbian. She was later reinstated.

Ten years after the Clinton administration instituted the policy of "don't ask, don't tell," it remains contentious and has fallen far short of President Bill Clinton's vow to allow gays to serve openly. The officers hope to spur a dialogue, in Washington and in the military, about changing the policy.

Nearly 10,000 service members have been discharged for being gay under the policy, which was signed into law by Mr. Clinton on Nov. 30, 1993, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights group that monitors military justice. The group made the officers available to The New York Times as part of a campaign to mark the anniversary of the policy's official inception.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was a compromise to permit gay men and lesbians to serve without fear of harassment or expulsion as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the Bush administration will not revisit the policy.

Senior military leaders have argued that openly gay service members would disrupt unit cohesion and morale. "We remain committed to treating all service members with dignity and respect, while fairly enforcing those provisions of the law that mandate the separation of those who choose to violate the policy," the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

When the policy was created, military officials argued that most Americans - and, thus, most soldiers - did not approve of or tolerate homosexuality. And while gay service members are believed to make up only a small fraction of a military of more than one million men and women, commanders have said they are concerned that forcing heterosexual members to live, and fight, side by side with gays will undermine the military's mission to win the nation's wars.

"Because gays and lesbians are required to serve in silence and in celibacy," Admiral Steinman said, "the policy is almost impossible to follow. It has been effectively a ban." The Coast Guard is not under the authority of the Pentagon, but follows the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The officers were reluctant to discuss their personal relationships, in part, they said, for fear of the consequences to themselves and loved ones. "I was denied the opportunity to share my life with a loved one, to have a family, to do all the things that heterosexual Americans take for granted," Admiral Steinman said. "That's the sacrifice I made to serve my country."

He added, "I didn't even tell my family I was gay until after I retired from the military."

General Richard, who retired from the Army in 1991 after 32 years of service, including assignments in Vietnam and at the Pentagon, said, "No one knew I was gay when I was in the military."

"I suppressed my desires, and didn't allow myself to be who I am because there was too much at stake," he said.

Admiral Steinman, who was the surgeon general of the Coast Guard before he retired in 1997, recalled that earlier in his career, when he was a flight surgeon, a young air crewman came to see him with a health problem.

"I had to stop him, when it became clear that he was going to tell me he was gay," Admiral Steinman said. "I would have been required to report him to command for discharge."

General Kerr, who retired from the California State Military Reserves in 1995 after 31 years in the Army and the Reserves, primarily with intelligence groups, said it had taken a long time for him to decide to come out. "The culture of the military is that you go along and conform," he said. "And you keep your private life to yourself."

The officers said that the Defense Department and White House had not adequately addressed the problem of harassment.

"It is important that they engage the harassment issue," Admiral Steinman, who lives in Dupont, Wash., said. "It needs to be tackled more forcefully. And the president could set the tone."

General Kerr agreed. "The president seems reluctant to emphasize the anti-harassment part of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," he said in an interview from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. "He just doesn't feel this is a serious issue."

General Richard said he thought the policy had damaged military readiness and recruitment and retention of soldiers. "There are gays and lesbians who want to serve honorably and with integrity, but have been forced to compromise," he said in an interview from his home in Austin, Tex. "It is a matter of honor and integrity."