Do Tell: Out and Proud in the Military

With the military's don't ask, don't tell policy repealed, new opportunities lie awake for college students who identify as LGBT.

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Jay Steiner needs money for college. To finish school cost-free and without student loans, she enlisted in the military. Sounds simple enough.

A year ago, this was not a viable option for the 21-year-old lesbian.

Jay always considered joining the military. She was denied enlisting for being too young at age 17. But it turned into a serious option when college became too expensive—and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally underway.

Jay, a petite and reserved Massillon native, studied criminal justice at the University of Akron from 2008 to 2010 before transferring to Kent State Stark. She finished the Fall 2010 semester at Stark and moved to the Kent area in hopes of attending Kent State’s main campus.

Then she realized she couldn’t afford another semester of school.

“I ran out of money,” she says, “and that’s why I turned to the Army.”

The Armed Forces pays for service members’ college tuition and student loans. After weeks of visiting with Kent recruiters, Jay took a day off from work and traveled to Cleveland on July 11 to be sworn in to the Army.

Being Gay in the Military

Jay Steiner. Photo by Emma Borrelli

The DADT policy was established in 1993,  and it banned any inquiry into a soldier’s sexual orientation and prohibited gay and lesbian service members from serving openly. When Jay enlisted with the Army, President Obama had already signed the DADT Repeal Act in December 2010. But the repeal would not be official until the military announced it was “prepared to implement repeal in a manner that is consistent with the standards of military readiness,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense repeal reference guide.

“I was really excited about DADT being repealed,” Jay says. “I don’t see why gay people would not be able to serve our country. I always thought that was silly—there’s always been gay people in the military.”

Because the DADT repeal was not yet official when she enlisted, Jay felt some unease about entering the military as an open lesbian.

With a buzz haircut, five tattoos and a butch wardrobe of T-shirts, button downs and jeans, “I thought it was obvious—I look pretty gay,” she says.

And that’s not all, she says. “I have this ridiculous tattoo.”

The tattoo of issue is an upside-down pink triangle on her left shoulder. When she enlisted in the Armed Forces, a recruiter took a photo of each tattoo for documentation. She was then asked to write a description for each marking.

An upside-down triangle is a symbol for gay rights and female sexuality. But when it came to Jay’s pink triangle, “I wrote about inner strength because I didn’t want to mention homosexuality,” she says. “They didn’t figure it out.”

Yet before the official repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Jay was asked about her sexuality—and she did tell.

Jay stopped by the Kent Army recruiting office for the first time in June 2011. She struck up a conversation with a recruiter, and soon they were “talking about random hot-button social issues, like abortion or something,” she says. The DADT repeal “got thrown in with the random stuff we shouldn’t have been discussing.”

The recruiter “asked me if I was gay,” Jay says. “And I said ‘yes.’ He was trying to make me feel comfortable because I was the only girl in the program. I thought it was going to be miserable doing push-ups and running around with guys twice my size.”

Jay says the recruiter even told her about two lesbians who had just shipped out.

A few weeks later, a new first sergeant at the Army office checked in on Jay and other new recruits during a physical training session. He asked about family and if they were still excited about joining the Army.

“I asked about the repeal and what that meant for me,” Jay says. “I kind of outed myself to him.”

She told the first sergeant that she had been asked about her sexual orientation, and he said no one should have done that.

“He basically said not to talk about it until [the repeal] goes into effect,” Jay says. “He said there’s nothing they’re going to do now, [but] he was trying to protect me.”

Jay and her girlfriend, Cassie. Photos by Emma Borrelli

Family, Friends and the Army

Jay comes from a military family: both her parents served in the Army and supported her interest in joining the branch.

Jay’s mother, Patricia, joined the military in 1986 and is glad the Army today is a different place than when she was in service.

“It was very difficult back then and there was a lot of fear,” Patricia says. She says she knew gay service members who “were so afraid because they could lose their entire careers over it.”

Patricia is optimistic for Jay’s Army service. “She’ll have the support she needs, and she’ll be comfortable being herself,” she says.

Jay’s friend, Chris Kuhn, was a gay serviceman in the Air Force and encouraged her to enlist in the same branch.

“When I told [Chris] that I wanted to enlist in the Army, he basically tried to discourage it,” Jay says.

Although Chris believes the Air Force is the best branch to serve under, he says gay service members still had to keep a tight lid on their sexual orientation.

“I personally witnessed people who were targeted for being gay and were kicked out,” Chris says. They “had to fight just to get an honorable discharge.”

Chris, a senior computer information systems major at the University of Akron, joined the Air Force in 2003. He says a question on the application asked, “Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity?” He lied so he wouldn’t be denied military service.

“One of the core principles in the Air Force is honesty and integrity,” Chris says. “You have to go against a core principle of the organization in order to get into the organization.”

Chris estimates about a dozen service members knew he was gay during his service in the Air Force, but superior ranking officers never investigated his sexual orientation. That wasn’t the case with a few other gay service members Chris met. He says he lost one friend under DADT after a second lieutenant “led him on” just enough to expose his sexual orientation.

“I was thoroughly disgusted by it,” Chris says.

Chris was not discharged under DADT but was kicked out for underage drinking in 2004. He says he would have continued on with his service. Chris remains involved with the University of Akron’s Military Veterans Association and is president of Akron’s LGBT Union.

He now shares his story with other gay and lesbian students and encourages them to join the military—specifically the Air Force.

Chris met Jay at an Akron LGBTU meeting, where he tried to sway her from joining the Army.

“He thought [the Air Force] treated you better and thought it was a better living situation in general, not just that I’m a woman or that I’m gay,” Jay recalls. “He said [the Army] treat[s] you like you’re expendable.”

Jay tried to contact an Air Force recruiter, but when no one returned her calls a week later, she decided to keep her mind set on the Army.

“It really didn’t have anything to do with my parents’ experiences,” Jay says. “I guess I had already made up my mind at that point.”

After meeting with Army recruiters and beginning the enlistment process, Jay felt “invested” in them, she says. Yet no matter which branch she enlisted with, Jay’s primary reason for joining was still financial.

“I’m really not patriotic by any means,” Jay says. “I don’t really want to fight for a country I can’t get married in.”

But that didn’t keep her from signing up, especially when she knew she would be able to serve openly once the DADT repeal became official a few months later in September 2011.

Had President Obama not signed the DADT Repeal Act of 2010, “I definitely wouldn’t have even tried [enlisting,]” Jay says. “I don’t know how to hide that [I’m gay]. I feel like it would be really hard to lie about.”

Her mother, Patricia, also didn’t want Jay enlisting before the repeal.

“It would have made me very uncomfortable to see her going in there because she would have to live under… that secrecy just to be a soldier,” Patricia says.

The repeal “was something that should have happened a long time ago,” she says. “That’s no way for a patriot to live. They should have the freedom to serve just like anyone else.”

Now, with DADT long gone, Patricia looks forward to her daughter’s Army career.

“I am very supportive and very, very proud of her for wanting to do this,” Patricia says. “I’m excited for her, too. She has a real bright future ahead of her.”

Photos by Emma Borrelli

When the Armed Forces announced its preparation to implement the repeal, all servicemen and women had undergone sensitivity training to understand the repeal and how guidelines had changed. Through training and adjusting, the Army maintains its fundamental value of respect for service members.

“While it would be unrealistic to believe this change will occur without incident, strong leadership and a sustained commitment by all remain crucial to making this a smooth transition,” Diana Dawa, deputy public affairs officer for the Army, says in an email.

“It remains the policy of the Army not to ask service members or applicants about their sexual orientation and to treat all members with dignity and respect,” Diana says.

Jay heard a similar message when she enlisted.

“When I asked about [the repeal,]” Jay says, “I had a peace of mind knowing it had already been addressed.”

Diana says the DADT repeal does not affect many of the Army’s guidelines.

“The repeal necessitated some changes to policies, but most of our policy required no change—they were already sexual orientation-neutral,” Diana says.

This includes partner benefits. “Eligibility standards for benefits remain the same as they currently are,” Diana says. “Soldiers will continue to have various benefits for which they can designate beneficiaries regardless of sexual orientation, such as Service Members’ Group Life Insurance Beneficiary…[and] Survivor Benefit Plan Beneficiary.”

As far as partner and family benefits go, Jay says, “I would honestly leave everything to my mother and my little brother.”

What Lies Ahead

Jay participates in weekly physical training (PT) sessions in Kent. During PT, she and other recruits run, learn new skills and get ready for basic training. She is set to leave January 17, 2012, for basic training in South Carolina, followed with Advanced Individual Training in Georgia for 25 weeks. Then, “I have no idea [where I’ll serve,]” Jay says.

She does know she will serve four years of active duty, then four years in the reserves, during which she will meet with her unit once a month.

Jay will go back to school to complete her degree in criminal justice but is not sure which school she’ll return to.

“I assumed that I would want to go to Kent—I love Kent!” she says. “But I’m gonna be really old. I don’t necessarily want to be in Ohio now, so I might not want to be in Ohio at all.”

After graduation, Jay plans to work as a juvenile corrections officer.

No matter where she ends up, the Army will be covering Jay’s finances and providing her with lifelong experiences that, before the DADT repeal, would not have been plausible.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Jay says. “I think everyone should have the chance to join the military if they want to.”

Simon Husted contributed reporting.

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