In 1987, when Margaret Witt first joined the Air Force, her future looked bright. The number of women in the USAF was growing explosively; an acclaimed flight nurse, she gained rank quickly. Soon, she was commanding a highly-regarded medical evacuation unit that deployed for those in both Iraq wars. Then came 2004, when the Air Force had discovered that she was living with a same-sex partner and began an investigation that ended Witt’s 18-year career. But last week, Witt got her career back — and may have dealt a fatal blow to the policy that ended it.
On Friday, a federal judge in Seattle ruled on her lawsuit against the Air Force and ordered the USAF to reinstate Major Witt, whose initial reaction was straightforward: “I am just so thrilled [that] I have the chance to do what I wanted to do all along. That’s a return to my unit.”
The ruling was the second this month alone that called into question the Pentagon’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay servicemembers, and was hailed by advocates. “This is a stunning victory for Major Witt and all gay and lesbian patriots serving our country today,” declared Army veteran Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Former Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer, 20 years after her own discharge on similar grounds, told a Seattle TV station: “This is just huge. I could cry.”
But only three days earlier, Congress had thrown cold water on efforts to change the policy. A handful of U.S. senators blocked a vote on the entire defense appropriations bill, rather than include a provision that would have allowed the military, upon completion of an already-ongoing review of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to end the policy if it was determined harmful to military readiness. After Friday’s decision, some commentators speculated that the issue could be resolved more easily by the courts: “Clearly federal courts are trending towards allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly,” said Sarvis.
LGBT veterans, attorneys and organizations like SLDN were all careful to add that Witt v. Air Force only increased the need for rapid repeal of the Congressional legislation that enshrined “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as law. Particularly adamant were advocates for military women, all of whom are affected by the policy regardless of sexual orientation. In 2008, women made up 15 percent of the armed forces but 34 percent of service members discharged under DADT. And in the Air Force — Witt’s service, which is 20 percent female — women made up an astonishing 62 percent of DADT discharges.
“This policy is unjust and must be repealed,” said former Marine Corps captain Anuradha Bhagwati, who now directs the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). “While I served on active duty, I saw the toll of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. My friend was an exemplary Marine officer [who] wanted to continue serving our country, but the stress of living under the policy forced her to leave. Is this what we as a nation want?”
One of SWAN’s co-founders, law student Jennifer Hogg, found that she could live with the policy until 2001, when her National Guard unit was deployed to New York City after September 11. Hogg felt acutely the military’s mandate to stay closeted: All around her, male soldiers were hugging their wives, young mothers were sobbing as they said goodbye to their kids. “If I did not have the freedom to hug my girlfriend goodbye,” Hogg told The Advocate years later, “then what freedom was I protecting? What freedom could we offer to the world if we treat it so restrictively based on who a person falls in love with?”
Longtime LGBT advocate David Mixner emphasized the risks of “lesbian baiting” for all military women. “For women, this policy is particularly brutal,” Mixner told me earlier this year. “Many women are targeted for investigation under DADT, including straight women, because they refused the advances of a male soldier. The soldier then tells the command she must be gay, otherwise she wouldn’t have refused him. The policy is a tool of sexual harassment; I don’t know if people understand that.” In an e-mail last week, Col. Cammermeyer agreed: “Indeed, all women are affected by DADT. How do you prove you are not a lesbian if propositioned?”
If DADT falls this year, it may be partly because of Witt’s case and the legal benchmark it created, already known as “the Witt standard.” Alert observers may remember, during this past summer’s confirmation hearings of now-Justice Elena Kagan, that the Witt standard was mentioned as senators tried to ferret out Kagan’s views on gay rights. The standard was created by the Ninth Circuit in 2008, when it ruled that the Air Force must prove discharging Maj. Witt was necessary “for purposes of military readiness within her unit,” or be deemed in violation of the U.S. Constitution. That decision has not been appealed by the government.
That 2008 ruling led to Friday’s decision on Witt v. U.S. Air Force by U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton, the same district court judge who had ruled earlier that Witt’s dismissal was consistent with U.S. military policy. When he followed the Ninth Circuit’s instructions, and heard testimony from Witt’s unit that they needed her, Leighton ruled instead that it was the discharge of the highly decorated Witt, not her sexuality, that had damaged her unit’s ability to perform its mission.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — what Bhagwati and Mixner call “the policy” — was an act of political compromise, brokered 17 years ago by the then-new Clinton Administration in an atmosphere about as partisan as the current climate. Needless to say, a lot has happened since then to change public perceptions of gay and lesbians and their families, including inside the military itself: Recent studies have shown that almost 75 percent of military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are personally comfortable interacting with gays and lesbians; that a majority of junior enlisted members believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military; and that among people considering joining the military, a quarter said that the ban made them feel embarrassed on the military’s behalf. Many among the top brass agree. This past February, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that ending the policy is the right thing to do.
Still, last week’s bruising Senate battle on the issue demonstrated how politically toxic the prospect of repeal remains. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is now at an impasse that only the President can resolve,” stated Christopher Neff, of the Palm Center (formerly The Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military).”It is becoming increasingly clear that we are facing a new set of challenges and a new landscape for the repeal.” Like other advocates, Neff has urged that, while the politicians wrangle and cases plod through the courts, the Obama administration immediately suspend implementation of the policy right now, with no new investigations or discharges.
David Mixner, who has been fighting the ban on behalf of gay servicemembers for 30 years, was blunt: “Listen, the president can issue a stop-loss order today,” he said after Mullen’s remarks in February. “He’s commander in chief. He could keep them from being dismissed today. Say we’re fighting two wars, we need all our people, all discharges for homosexuality suspended until further notice. ” Every day that he doesn’t, Mixner added, LGBT personnel stay in that enforced closet. “They can’t get family leave. They can’t have base housing. If they mention a loved one, they might be discharged, at the discretion of the commander. If Obama had to live by those regulations, he couldn’t do it. The moment he left his family at the White House he couldn’t mention Michelle, he couldn’t mention the girls. She couldn’t live at the White House, she would get no benefits, and he couldn’t even have pictures of them at his desk. He can’t live that way. Why the hell does he think we can?”
As the issue is held hostage this fall by partisan rancor, it’s unclear how far the decision on Witt’s case will apply, how many appeals it will take or how much TV time will be devoted to rival politicians debating “the issue.” What is clear is that to Witt, as to Cammermeyer 20 years earlier, the political wrangling is irrelevant to why she was in the military in the first place. (At left, Cammermeyer and Witt at an SLDN dinner last year.)
“Wounded personnel never asked me about my sexual orientation,” said Witt on Friday. “They were just glad to see me.”
This story originally appeared in Women's Voices for Change.