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During the five years Army specialist William Hayes served in the military, the 22-year old soldier who was assigned to a Patriot missile battery kept his sexual orientation a secret, fearing he would be kicked out of the service.
On Tuesday, Hayes said that fear had ended, as the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy went into effect. Hayes was part of a group of military service members who gathered at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center Village at Ed Gould Plaza to celebrate the repeal, and call for an end to other restrictions that they claim are discriminatory to the gay members of the armed forces.
“When I first went into the military, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was pretty much the last thing on my mind, I just wanted to get through basic training. But when I got to my first duty station, I saw there was a good possibility I could be kicked out because of who I am,” Hayes said. “I had to safeguard myself by keeping quiet and keeping things secret. I was concerned about being kicked out, earning benefits and losing them all, and not getting an honorable discharge.”
Hayes, whose active Army duty service ended a little over a month ago, is now a member of the Army Reserve, stationed in the City of Bell. He moved to the Miracle Mile on Sept. 1, and is happy to now be free to express his sexual orientation. He said the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is extremely important to the estimated 65,000 active duty members of the U.S. military who are gay, and added that it will ensure future recruits don’t have to live in secrecy.
The repeal of the 18-year-old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was approved by Congress in December, but implementation was pushed back until September so the Pentagon could train members of the military to conform to the new standards. While it allows gays, lesbians and same-sex couples to serve openly, and permits them to appear together at public functions, there are still restrictions that deny them health, education and housing benefits. Same-sex couples are also denied many federal benefits under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
But those celebrating the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Tuesday said they would continue the fight for equality and would push for a repeal of the other restrictions. Tom Carpenter, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a board member of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, characterized “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as “the only law that mandated discrimination against an entire class of American citizens.” He added that the U.S. military will benefit from personnel being able to serve openly.
“These young men and women had to stay in the closet, and will now be able to be part of the team,” Carpenter said. “It will increase unit cohesion, and will increase the readiness of our armed forces.”
Hayes said there were approximately 15 LGBT servicemembers in his battery of approximately 230 soldiers, and that they generally knew of each other’s sexual identity. They didn’t encounter any problems as long as they didn’t discuss their sexual orientation while on duty.
But West Hollywood resident Mervil Greene, a former corporal in he U.S. Marine corps, offered a different portrayal. Greene, who served for three years during the 1990s, said he had to leave the service in 1997 when his fellow Marines found out he was gay. According to Greene, a fellow Marine was caught making fraudulent ID cards and identified Marines who were gay, including Greene, in exchange for a lesser punishment.
“I got interrogated and was wondering what was going on,” Greene added. “After that, I started the paperwork to get processed out.”
Greene said up until that time, he had a stellar record and had received two promotions. He has lived in West Hollywood since 1998 and now runs a landscaping business. Greene added that he feels like he was forced out of the Marines because of his sexual orientation, and the emotional pain still exists.
“What has stayed with me is that I always had to live a double life,” Greene added. “It’s ingrained in me now. I have a hard time telling people I am gay. It’s not something I go around discussing, and it has affected relationships.”
Other members of the military present Tuesday, including Navy petty officer Luz Bautista, added that there are still other challenges ahead. Bautista is currently pregnant, and she and her partner, who is also in the military, are not stationed together. But Bautista said being able to openly discuss her sexual orientation is a huge first step in the right direction, and she is hopeful now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, she and her partner can soon live together.
“Because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ I couldn’t be stationed anywhere near my partner, so I am now being stationed in Illinois and will be there for three years,” Bautista added. “But all of this will be a good thing in the future.”
Jim Key, chief public affairs officer for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and a former U.S. Marine, also expressed optimism about the future for LGBT members of the military. While on active duty from 1984-93, Key said he also had to keep his sexual orientation a secret, but is relieved new servicemembers will not have to endure the same hardship.
“I was there when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was first being debated. I heard so many homophobic and troubling things. I believed if people knew my sexual orientation that I would be physically harmed, or at the least, would be ostracized,” Key said. “I wish I had the courage [then] to come out. Now, members of the service can fight for our country without the fear that they will be persecuted.”
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