Over 60 years ago, President Harry S. Truman took a monumental step towards social progress by integrating the US armed forces and civil service. This action allowed African American soldiers to serve in integrated combat units alongside white soldiers. Today, another military battle rages over the issue of allowing openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve alongside their straight counterparts. For years, gay and lesbian activists have been calling for the repeal of the military policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT), which removes openly gay personnel from the armed forces.
Most of their efforts have largely been viewed as a gay white movement until now. Asian American First Lieutenant Dan Choi, an Arabic-speaking linguist has recently become a vocal critic of the policy. Choi, a West Point graduate and a combat veteran of the Iraq War is currently being discharged from the Army for admitting to being gay. He will soon join the 13,000+ men and women who have been discharged from the military under the policy costing tax payers nearly $400 million dollars in investigation, recruitment, retraining and separation costs.
To date many of the faces, voices and stories of African Americans who have been impacted by the Clinton-era policy have largely remained invisible and silent until now. Two black and openly gay men are speaking up and making a difference in the struggle to end DADT.
Anthony Woods graduated on the Dean’s List from West Point and later received his Master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In between his education, he served two long deployments in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star by the US Army.
But Woods lived with the secret that he was gay and finally determined that he could no longer serve in silence under DADT. He was honorably discharged in 2008. Today at the age 28, he is running for US Congress in California ’s vastly white 10th Congressional District. The seat is expected to become vacant when Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) resigns to accept President Obama’s appointment as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
Tommie Watkins was once the admired and twice elected class president at Annapolis Naval Academy but he was abruptly kicked out of the Navy in 1997 when it was discovered that he was gay. Watkins was then ordered to pay back over $86K in tuition and interest to the United States government. But Watkins summoned the fortitude to sue the Navy and won. Today he is a vocal advocate for the repeal of DADT.
“I believe in being honest and I believe in integrity”
Although he did not fully become aware of his sexuality until his college years, Anthony Woods explains that if he had known earlier, he still would have joined the Army. “I wanted to serve my country and I wanted an opportunity to get a quality education and I wanted to serve in the military.” But his childhood dreams would soon come crashing to an end after he struggled for six months before coming to the conclusion that he could no longer serve in silence under DADT.
” I believe in being honest and I believe in integrity in every aspect of my life. And so Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was forcing me and I believe others to lie about who they are.” However the word “lie” is really subjective in the case of DADT which gives a very clear option for gays and lesbians to remain in the armed forces. In fact it is estimated that “Nearly 65,000 men and women in uniform are likely gay or lesbian” and that “An estimated 1 million veterans in the United States are gay men or lesbians” according to the Urban Institute, nonpartisan economic and social policy think tank.
So it would appear on the surface that there is some relative success with the DADT polices of the past 16 years. But according to Woods this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell affects everyone differently and perhaps those 65,000 people are feeling differently about the policy. Those 13,500, myself included felt very differently about the policy.”
He adds that “In modern America I think there is something fundamentally wrong when the law says some segment of the population has to lie about who they are in order to not get fired.” To date, President Obama has yet to fulfill his campaign promise of repealing DADT much to the shock and ire of gay and lesbian activists. During a recent White House briefing press secretary, Robert Gibbs stated the president was seeking a “durable solution” in repealing DADT inferring that he preferred a legislative act versus issuing a presidential executive order.
However it has been over sixty years since President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to integrate the armed forces thus creating an excellent example of a “durable solution” to a similar situation. But Woods still has faith in the president. During a recent interview with CNN’s Campbell Brown he stated “It’s a matter of all of us standing up and letting the president know that we have his back and that the time is now to get rid of the policy.”
But until that time comes Woods will be campaigning in Northern California in a crowded field of possibly ten candidates using all avenues possible to get the word out about his campaign. From his 4,000+ member Facebook presence to fundraisers being held across the country, he is steadily building up a financial war chest from men and women from all walks of life who believe in his principles. Furthermore. Woods insists that he is not a one-issue candidate. “That would be a waste of a lot of effort and a lot of time and squandered opportunity.”
He pledges to join the fight for universal health care with a public option. “I understand what its like to be one of 47 million Americans without health insurance. I want to bring a different voice to that fight” adding he knows what it is like to “Have to rely on luck to stay healthy.”
He also plans to focus on the nation’s economic recovery and on issues of national security, explaining “It’s really hard to lose perspective when you’ve done these things yourself.” And for his critics who point out that he has zero political experience, Woods believes he actually has the most life experience of all of his contenders.
“Voters are pretty frustrated with sending experienced politicians to Washington , DC or to Sacramento and then realizing that they’re not happy with the results. I think this is an opportunity to send a person who’s not going to cave into special interests because I’ve lived the same battle that they’re fighting on a daily basis.”
‘I volunteered to serve my country because I love my country’
“I knew I was different at the age of eight, but did not know what to call it until I was twelve” explains Tommie Watkins Jr. But that did not stop Watkin’s burning desire to join the armed forces. “I joined the military believing that as long as I did not tell they could not ask and I would not be unfairly discriminated because of my sexual orientation.”
Soon that dream would be horribly dashed when Watkins met and dated a fellow midshipman in the US Naval Academy. Most people knew about their relationship and often joked about it, but the teasing would soon prove be too much for his partner, who reported Watkins to their superiors.
“He said I would hang around him and would spend too much time around him” and that “I was trying to make him gay.” But this is where the story begins to get a little tricky. Under the homophobic and sometimes witchhunt climate of DADT, Watkins would soon be railroaded out of the Navy although technically he did not violate DADT policies.
“In my case they didn’t ask and I didn’t tell, but they harassed me and pursued me and threw me out of the Navy and then said, by the way, here’s a crippling debt to add.” Watkins vividly recalls that he was forced to resign because the Navy JAG threatened to prosecute him for sexual harassment based on the claim of wanting to spend too much time with another midshipman. This midshipman Watkins feels was actually struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality and in a desperate attempt to throw off suspicion, reported Watkins as gay instead.
“The government came up with the word harassment” which is a far cry from the initial complaint of Watkin’s accuser. To add insult to injury the accuser, who is white, was allowed to remain in the Naval Academy, while Watkins, who is black, was forced to resign and repay initial tuition costs of $66,000.
The inequity of treatment was the basis of Watkin’s complaint against the Navy. His case was eventually turned over to the Navy Inspector General and after three years the Pentagon ruled in a surprising 3-0 decision that he was a “victim of error and injustice” and waived the recoupment of tuition. Watkins had won and was exonerated of the Navy’s false allegations, but the story didn’t stop there. The Secretary of the Navy refused to comply with the Pentagon’s ruling and continued to pursue repayment of tuition.
Watkins was then forced to file a petition in the federal district court of Maryland in order to “Make the Navy obey itself.” Meanwhile US Senators and Congressman wrote letters of support to President Clinton urging his administration to put a stop the seeming witch hunt.
Finally, in offline negotiations with the US Attorney General’s Office, Watkins agreed to drop his lawsuit and the US government agreed to stop pursuing him for the repayment of tuition which had grown with interest to over $86,000.
“I volunteered to serve my country because I love my country. Our job is to serve and everything else is secondary” Watkins reflects. He also clarifies that if DADT is lifted there will not be a “floodgate” of gays and lesbians rushing to join the military because they are already there. Instead “People will no longer have to lie in order to serve their country.” But probably the most appalling thing about DADT other than forcing servicmembers to lie is the way that it is often inconsistently applied.
“It is 100% arbitrary and capricious” explaining that “If your commanding officers suspect it then it only lies within the realm of your commanding officers. But some commanding officers believe that sexual orientation is not the most qualifier for their servicemembers within their command.” However, for over 13,000 American servicemembers they have become the unlucky victims of the whimsical and unpredictable bias of their commanding officers.
Watkins has written a book about his experience in the Navy titled Living Out Loud.
Today, he works as an HIV prevention specialist in his hometown of Birmingham , Alabama . He recently earned a Masters of Social Work from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and will soon enroll at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to earn a doctorate in Public Health. His focus will be to conduct research on black men who have sex with men (MSM) and their disproportionate HIV/AIDS infection rate.
Herndon Davis is a media consultant/journalist focusing on issues of diversity among people-of-color, women and LGBT. He can be reached at www.herndondavis.com