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COMMENTARY: Why post-DADT "firsts" matter

Editor's note: This commentary was previously published today, December 22, 2011, as "The Kiss Heard Round the World" in SLDN's Frontlines Feed. We felt its significance, on this first anniversary of President Obama signing the repeal of DADT, was important to share with our readers.

“I feel good about it. It's nice to be able to be myself.” -- Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta to a Virginian-Pilot reporter when asked about how it felt to be able to be the first Sailor off USS Oak Hill to kiss her girlfriend; and the first known lesbian Sailor to openly participate in the tradition.

“True acceptance is when no one will care about this. We’re not there yet. Personally, I don’t give a rat's turd about any of this. Serve and do your job. Welcome home. Enjoy your holiday stand down.” -- U.S. Navy Senior Chief (E-8) and friend that I greatly respect and admire, upon sharing a photo of the moment with his friends online.

And so, in a nutshell, you have my reaction to this “first kiss” - it is both magnificent and mundane. 

It is a moment of private joy shared publicly and will soon be repeated over and over as gay, lesbian, and bisexual Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen come home from serving overseas. 

This moment, so often repeated by straight uniformed members, shouldn't be a headline in a post-DADT reality and yet … I have to acknowledge that post-DADT “firsts” have been happening, will continue to happen, and they ARE significant. 

They matter today, obviously, but not just because of the present. They matter because of the past. 

Thousands of service members were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and never had the opportunity to experience that “coming home embrace” from a partner. 

They couldn’t take their partner to a service ball because having a same-gender partner was against the law.  They couldn’t get married because it was against the law. They couldn’t reenlist because their discharge papers marked them incompatible with military service.

A year ago, December 22, 2010, after the most intense lobbying for repeal we had ever seen, the law to repeal DADT was finally signed by President Obama.

Starting in January, we began the suspenseful process of waiting and watching to see when certification would take place. Days turned into weeks and then months … and when it happened, we waited those 90 unending days, until September 20th, for the policy to finally turn to dust.  It took no time for the firsts to begin.

Almost immediately, Lt. Gary Ross became the first military member to marry his partner. On September 22nd, two days later, I took the oath of enlistment into the Navy reserves, becoming the first veteran discharged under DADT to rejoin the military. On December 12th, twice DADT-discharged Sailor, Petty Officer Jase Daniels became the first to return to full active duty. Captain Matthew Phelps recently became the first to publicly recount bringing his partner to a Marine Corps Birthday Ball. 

Now, the iconic “coming home embrace” has its first openly gay kiss by two Sailors who happen to be lesbian and engaged.

Yes, true acceptance is still happening.  After all, it’s only been a little over 90 days. These firsts signify the very real result of sacrifices made to end a law that did real harm to people’s lives. 

They matter even more because the fight isn't over. 

The Defense of Marriage Act still makes legal marriages like Lt. Ross’s meaningless to the military. The promise of equality isn’t over.  He can bring his partner to unit functions, but they do not have the same rights and privileges as straight married couples in uniform.  If Petty Officer Gaeta chooses to marry her partner, also a Sailor, they won't be eligible for any programs that would normally try to accommodate marriages where both partners are in uniform. 

SLDN has taken on DOMA as its next goal, announcing a lawsuit to challenge the inequality and intentional harm it causes.

These moments, these firsts, should be ordinary, but they aren’t yet. These firsts matter because our allies, activists, leaders and representatives need to be reminded that inequality continues and uniformed lives continue to be affected by it every single day.

My final thought is one of congratulations. 

Congratulations to all of the firsts that HAVEN’T received attention.  To all of those in uniform who finally felt comfortable enough to come out to their co-workers without fear of reprisal; to all of those who felt comfortable enough to bring their partner to a “hail and farewell” party; to all of those who felt comfortable enough to put a picture of their partner on their desk for the first time …

THESE are the firsts that matter today and they will continue to make a difference. Each personal first is a small victory for us all. Each affirms that repeal was the right thing to do and that integrity among team members matters.

Congratulations, Petty Officer Gaeta! And Congratulations to every LGB service member who, by example, makes the case for why DOMA repeal or elimination must happen soon.

Petty Officer Johnson was the first veteran discharged under DADT to re-enlist in the military. He is a founding member of The 6th Branch, a veteran run 501(c)3 organization based in Baltimore. The 6th Branch utilizes the leadership and organizaitonal skills of military veterans to execute aggressive community service initiatives.