Fighting an ‘un-American’ Policy

Mara Boyd took the fight against the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy to the White House lawn.

Robin Petré

Woman on a mission: Mara Boyd has been protesting the U.S. government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy since she was discharged from the Air Force for being openly gay. (Photo by: Emily Locklear)

Driven by curiosity and the desire for a military career, Mara Boyd was only 17 when she joined the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in 1999.

Integrity was something we talked about a lot in the Air Force, and I decided early on that I wanted to have integrity in my life. Under DADT, I couldn’t have integrity.

When she came out as a lesbian two years later, to herself and then gradually to her family and friends, she knew little about the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy passed as an executive order by former President Bill Clinton in 1993. DADT allows gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve in the U.S. military, but only if they are silent about their sexual orientation.

Since the law’s enactment, the Pentagon has discharged an estimated 13,500 servicemen and women because of their sexual orientation. In 2002, after coming out to her commander, Boyd was immediately suspended from the Air Force. 

On April 20, Boyd, now 28, and five other similarly discharged veterans handcuffed themselves to the White House’s front lawn fence to protest DADT. All six were arrested, jailed for more than 24 hours and charged with refusing to obey a police order.

On May 27, efforts to scrap DADT gained momentum when the House of Representatives approved a proposal allowing the Defense Department to repeal the policy in early 2011

However, the U.S. military will not abandon the policy until the Pentagon examines the potential consequences of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. (The report is due out on December 1.) Before the current policy is repealed, the President, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must certify that unit cohesion and the military’s ability to execute combat operations will not be impaired by a change.

Tell me about your experience outside the White House on April 20.

It was a very powerful week for me. I’ve been doing interviews and speaking to classrooms and all kinds of organizations about DADT. For eight years, I’ve been sharing my story and trying to get the word out regionally from a grassroots level, so to be part of something a little more direct and with a little more action and physical engagement was very powerful for me.

I had never been arrested before, so of course I had some anxiety about that, but I knew why I was there. It’s my duty, as somebody who’s not in the military, to be fighting this. I can’t wear the uniform but I can still continue to serve my country by standing up for a policy that is wrong and, frankly, un-American. 

Did it hurt when the police were sawing off the handcuffs?

Oh yes, it hurt, absolutely, like your wrists being wrenched. I had marks on my hands afterward. No scars, but bruises. 

What was it like to know that being open about your sexual orientation would put you in violation of federal law?

After I figured out that I was gay, I spent a year trying to gather information, because I didn’t really know what DADT was, even though I was a cadet. There’s not a lot of education about it, and there’s not a lot of openness about discussing it. People in the military don’t always know their legal rights within the context of this policy. 

It’s not really a policy you ask questions about on your own, because if you are looking for answers about DADT, does that mean you are gay? Why do you care? It is sort of a Catch-22. If you are gay and serving silently, that can be attention you really don’t need. 

How did you feel as you began to learn more about DADT?

That I couldn’t be the person who I was discovering I was. I was coming out to myself, and was not at all ashamed of who I was becoming and what I was learning about myself. I learned that it is very difficult to serve silently under DADT. You have to lie about how you spend your time and who you go home to at night.

You’re talking to your co-workers and somebody says, Hey, what did you do last night?” Well, what I did last night was go to a movie with my girlfriend, but I can’t tell you that because you can’t know that I’m gay, otherwise I get accused of violating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which could lead to my discharge. 

Was it difficult relating to your fellow servicemen and women?

I was definitely stressed out, spending a lot of energy coming up with lies or excuses instead of just focusing on my job. I was worried that somebody was going to figure out I was gay or would accuse me of being gay. Every day, I was afraid of being fired or kicked out of the program. 

What thoughts were running through your head as you were considering coming out?

I knew what I had to do. There was no way I would be able to continue lying, so the only choice was to say, I’m not going to lie anymore. I want to continue to serve, but I’m not going to be a liar.” 

So you stopped lying?

I made a statement to my commander. I said that I love the Air Force and that I had become a role model, a teacher and a mentor in our corps. I wasn’t given the same rights as the rest of the cadets. They were allowed to serve with integrity, and to lead by example, and as a lesbian cadet I wasn’t allowed that under DADT. Just by identifying as a lesbian cadet and saying that I won’t lie under DADT is enough to be discharged.

Integrity was something we talked about a lot in the Air Force, and I decided early on that I wanted to have integrity in my life. Under DADT, I couldn’t have integrity. 

After I came out, I was suspended from the program and an officer was assigned to investigate my case. So I had to drop out of school.

What did your commander say when you told him?

He had never dealt with this policy directly up to that point. He read my letter and then he said that he needed to make some phone calls to figure out exactly what he was supposed to do. 

He was in favor of the policy, but now he is outspokenly against the DADT, after having seen a cadet of his, who would have been a good officer, be lost to such a silly policy. 

What about your fellow cadets? What was their response?

I had established myself with a certain level of professionalism and job performance, so people knew me as the cadet that I was. They were sad to see me go. They didn’t care that I was gay. I didn’t have any negative reactions to my face, everybody was respectful and sad to see a good cadet be discharged from the program. 

What would your career look like if this hadn’t happened?

Who knows where I would be in my career in the military? I definitely would be in another place financially, because of the debt that I have accrued from continuing my education. 

I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do. I would love to go back to the military if DADT is repealed. If it’s not, then it may not be repealed in time for me to ever serve, which scares me a lot.

What is your advice to gay people serving in the military right now?

If everybody who is gay walked into his commander’s office tomorrow and said, I’m gay,” it would help our movement. That would be a very powerful thing. But of course you can’t ask people to do that. It is a personal decision, just as it is outside of the military. 

My advice to people who are serving silently right now is to not give up. There are gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers fighting this policy from within the military and there are people like me fighting it from the outside. You are not alone. We are working to get this changed.

Do you think that if DADT is repealed there might be a backlash from people in the military?

I think it will be a non-event. I don’t think there will be much change. If anything, it will only get better, because it will give people the opportunity to educate one another and be visible, be out and be honest.

We are assuming that when DADT is repealed, everybody who is serving silently is going to go to work and come out the next day. But that is not going to happen. People will come out if they choose to, to whom they feel safe coming out to. The only change will be that you can’t get fired if you choose to come out to someone.

Intimidation, harassment, racism, sexism and homophobia already exist in the military, and it will continue to exist in the military. 

Do you have plans for any future activism?

I am absolutely open to continue with direct action and civil disobedience. I think it is an effective avenue of protest, [and a way] to create change. So I will engage in it as opportunities arise.

Robin Petré is a student at the Danish School of Journalism and an In These Times intern.
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