Corporal Evelyn Thomas was two weeks shy of graduating from high school when she enlisted in the Army National Guard on May 17, 1986. She was 17, and her mother had to sign the contract that allowed her to enter the military because she was not of legal age.
Thomas was transferred from the National Guard to the U.S. Marine Corps in Camp Pendleton, Calif. She lived with other cadets in the on-base barracks, but Thomas soon found herself in the crosshairs of the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers, after a fellow Marine found a letter in her footlocker from her mother that asked her about a woman she was dating. The letter was turned into Thomas’ commanding officer—and military police promptly arrested her.
“They asked me if I’m a homosexual—I literally began to shake in my boots because I thought, ‘How did they find out?’” she says now. “As I’m standing there shaking, my commanding officer and my supervisor began to laugh, because they thought it was funny.”
Thomas was isolated from her fellow cadets the next day. She was transferred out of the barracks with two other Marines—one who had been accused of shoplifting and another who was the girlfriend of a cadet. “I was an ideal Marine, but because I was a gay or lesbian and loved someone of the same sex I was considered a problem Marine,” says Thomas.
Thomas was honorably discharged from the Marines more than two years before then-President Bill Clinton signed the don’t ask, don’t tell policy into law. That policy was officially repealed as of last week, on Sept. 20. It marks the end of a discriminatory era that was widely believed to have had a particularly negative impact on black women who served in the U.S. armed forces.
Even though black women comprise less than one percent of servicemembers, they represented 3.3 percent of all don’t ask, don’t tell discharges. Women in general appear to have been targeted under the policy. According to a 2010 Service Women’s Action Network report, women were 15 percent of the armed forces in 2008, but comprised 34 percent of the don’t ask, don’t tell discharges. People of color represented just under 30 percent of active duty personnel, but 45 percent of don’t ask, don’t tell discharges. The Pentagon discharged more than 14,000 servicemembers under the policy between when it took effect in December 1993 and its official end last week.
African Americans have long been overrepresented among both new recruits and among those who re-enlist after their initial term runs out, thus choosing to build a career in the armed forces. (Those numbers have, however, dropped dramatically in the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) For many, that has been an economic choice—military recruiters offer immediate jobs and potential for college in neighborhoods where both things are in short supply.
“Many view the military as a viable employer that will improve their quality of life,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. Her husband spent 26 years in the armed forces. “By virtue of that I respect the United States military to be a viable outlet for many African Americans.”
These considerations are exactly what prompted Thomas to enlist. She recalled doing her homework by candlelight because her mother did not have enough money to pay the electricity bill. Thomas enlisted under the G.I. Bill, which allowed her to become the first member of her family to attend college. She eventually earned a master’s degree in education.
“Nothing could go wrong with me by enlisting in the military and giving four to six years of my life,” Thomas recalls thinking.
So what went wrong for so many gay women who chose to serve?
Many women who have been discharged under don’t ask, don’t tell were reported to their commanding officers as lesbians after they rebuffed a fellow servicemember’s sexual advances. Sexual harassment and sexual assault remain serious problems within the ranks. Recent reports continue to indicate that the Pentagon has not done enough to address them.
The Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office indicated in a March 2011 report that there were 3,158 reported sexual assaults in the military in 2010. The Pentagon estimates that this figure represents less than 14 percent of the actual number of rapes and sexual assaults in the armed forces during this period. Furthermore, the SAPRO report indicates that 90 percent of sexual assaults and 80 percent of sexual harassment go unreported.
“Sexual assault is a crime that is incompatible with service in the U.S. Armed Forces,” states the report’s executive summary. “It undermines core values, degrades military readiness, subverts goodwill and forever changes the lives of victims and their families.”
Seventeen male and female servicemembers allege in a federal lawsuit filed against the Defense Department in February that the Pentagon has not done enough to investigate sexual assaults and harassment and prosecute those who committed them. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Northern Virginia is expected to move on the case later this fall.
Are there parallels between efforts to mitigate sexual violence in the military and to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly?
A provision in the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act requires military academies to investigate and report incidents of sexual harassment and assault. The House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committees both included a provision in their mark ups of the 2012 National Defense Reauthorization Act that would allow servicemembers who have been victims of sexual assault or harassment to request legal counsel, the right to obtain a base transfer and the right to maintain confidentiality when speaking to representatives and advocates. Another bill, the Defense Sexual Trauma Response Oversight and Good Governance (STRONG) Act, would also mandate more training for preventing sexual harassment.
Making Repeal Real
President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certified the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell in July. Implementation, however, is far easier said than done.
“We have a [military] culture that’s so hostile,” says Greg Jacob, policy director of Service Women’s Action Network. He warns that anti-gay discrimination in the military could nullify any tangible benefits from open service. “[If unchecked], it’s just going to drive those individuals right back into the closet.”
Stacey Long of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force also acknowledged that it will take more than the repeal of a discriminatory law to change attitudes towards gay and lesbian servicemembers. “It’s progress, but it’s cautionary progress,” she said. “We’re glad that it happened, we’re glad that the president followed through on his promise and now we want to do everything we can to support the servicemembers and make sure they continue to be treated with dignity and respect.”
For her part, Thomas herself founded the Sanctuary Project in 2009 as a way to minister to those who have been adversely impacted by the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers. Thomas is also among the 13 gay and lesbian servicemembers who were arrested last November after they chained themselves to the White House fence.
Reflecting on the emotions she felt as she and her wife witnessed the policy’s repeal, and the victory they helped create, Thomas says she was once again shaken. “My body had a physical reaction,” she says. “It’s been a long-time coming.”
Michael K. Lavers is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, WNYC, BBC, the Advocate and other LGBT and mainstream publications.