“Gentlemen, seat your ladies.”
For the first time, the young soldier was bringing a same-sex date to a military function. Just months before, President Obama and Congress had instituted a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, reversing America’s ban on gay men, lesbians and bisexuals serving openly in the military, which had forced more than 13,500 service members out of the armed forces since 1993.
When planning for the event, Roman asked his superiors to rewrite the short line that was in the program to be spoken during his unit’s formal dinner held at an off-post hotel in April 2012. Superiors, citing military precedents, denied his request. That’s how it has always been done, they said.
“I know it’s a small, very small thing, but to me it no longer reflected the composition of the class,” said Roman, 23, who has been in the Army since August 2011.
Beyond those four words, Roman and two other Fort Gordon personnel said they have experienced limited instances of discrimination since the repeal was enacted in September 2011.
Shifting paradigms and changed laws – including the extension of additional benefits to same-sex military couples, which goes into effect in September – are signs the Army is stronger, the soldiers said.
For the first time, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a memorandum joining the national observance of June as LGBT Pride Month.
“The military prides itself on being a representation of the nation,” Roman said. “Being LGBT should be reflected in our military.”
Staff Sgt. Karyl Holliday didn’t choose a day or time to tell his comrades he was gay. Having served in the military for six years before the repeal, his friends and chain-of-command likely knew his sexual orientation, he said.
“For me, nothing really changed at that point,” he said. “It was more so peace of mind that now everything is covered and everything is OK.”
Spc. LeSean Harvey, 22, who enlisted in November 2009, tells a similar story. On the day the repeal went into effect, many peers asked about his boyfriend.
A sexual harassment claim for alleged discrimination by a superior, who Harvey said called him degrading nicknames based on his sexual orientation, hasn’t overshadowed the support he has received from all but a few peers and superiors.
The University of California’s Palm Center, a research institute focused on gays in the military, conducted a study on the one-year anniversary of the repeal that showed discrimination was neither an issue nor widely found in any branch of the military.
Aaron Belkin, a co-author of the study, said the Army was prudent in training personnel before implementation. A smooth transition also reflects more tolerance toward gays in American society, especially among young people.
“Even if the repeal happened years ago, there still wouldn’t have been a problem,” Belkin said.
The repeal did not undermine military readiness or unit cohesion, the study found.
MAJ. GEN. LAWARREN V. Patterson, the commander of the U.S. Army Signal Center of Excellence and Fort Gordon, said in a statement that the installation was unchanged by the repeal. Leaders upheld expectations that everyone would be respected.
“Since taking command, I’ve personally received no complaints related to this issue,” Patterson said.
Repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a meaningful step toward equality, but activists continue to press for more change. The Fort Gordon soldiers are closely watching the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling expected this month on the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
The legislation forbids the federal government from recognizing any marriage besides that between a man and a woman – a reason the Department of Defense said housing and health care benefits cannot be extended to same-sex couples.
“DOMA needs to be abolished,” Harvey said. “We don’t want something special. We just want the same rights everyone else has.”
The soldiers say they are faced with daily reminders that if they do marry they are not treated equally in the military.
Holliday, 28, who is in a relationship with a civilian, worries about financial support if the Army relocates him. If he were to marry, his spouse couldn’t receive health care coverage or military housing because DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
For Roman, an active member of a gay and lesbian military support and advocacy group called OutServe-SLDN, said he feels a sense of responsibility to fight for changes.
“We’re supposed to be one Army,” Roman said. “We’re all supposed to be the same, but we have this second-class treatment that stems from the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Harvey doesn’t regret joining the military or being openly gay. In addition to the sexual harassment claim, which is still under investigation, he has filed two equal opportunity complaints.
INTOLERANCE, ALTHOUGH it has improved, isn’t limited to the Army, he said. Name-calling routinely occurs off-post if Harvey goes to a large place such as the mall or the movies with another man. But he doesn’t get angry, he said, knowing that others, not he, need to change.
“I’m hoping one day I can wake up and put on my uniform and be proud to serve in a nation where it doesn’t matter who you marry,” Harvey said.
Pvt. Andrew Miller, a straight soldier from California, said he serves with a few gay soldiers in his unit but not much attention is drawn to it.
“It’s just like working with another soldier,” he said. “You carry on. You do your job, and they do theirs.”
Roman and Holliday said Fort Gordon’s Signal Corps has not been a hostile environment for gays and lesbians.
“My peers, or at least the people I surround myself with, have never treated me with anything but love and respect,” Holliday said. “With a lot of my superiors, they make sure they are always treating me with respect.”
Holliday said he fears that more discrimination and harassment occur in infantry and other combat units.
Belkin, a co-author of the Palm Center study, said there’s no research specific to individual units but that the study’s analysis was conducted across military branches and units. The few reports of harassment found were not from combat units, he said.
“Harassment has not disappeared from the military, but it certainly did not get worse and probably lessened,” Belkin said.
Former Fort Gordon Commanding General Jan Hicks said the don’t ask, don’t tell repeal was implemented without major issue in part because of deep-rooted adherence to obedience and discipline in the military.
“When a decision is made and there’s a policy change, commanders realize they have to pass these new policies and rules along as if they had been their own decisions,” Hicks said.