U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

09/20/2023 | News release | Archived content

Twelve years later: The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

I kept refreshing my browser, over and over, as midnight approached on September 19, 2011. At 12:01 AM, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would be official-and a collector's edition of OutServe Magazine would be published online. The OutServe headline "101 Faces of Courage" was apt, as it featured pictures of active duty gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members in uniform, with their full names and duty stations, emphasizing the story that yes, thousands of LGB* Americans were already serving with honor.

Finally, the moment came, and the strong, proud faces of uniformed service members filled my screen. And tears filled my eyes.

I left the Army in 1986. A 1980 West Point graduate, I'd been a successful platoon leader, staff officer and company commander. But I gave up the Army-and my dream of returning to the Academy to teach-because I couldn't risk being discovered as a lesbian. I'd already lived through one "witch hunt," where senior officers interrogated almost every woman on our post in West Germany asking for names of gays and lesbians. I saw firsthand the waste of talent as the Army lost not just gays and lesbians, but women falsely accused of homosexuality because they wouldn't date a senior NCO or officer.

Years later, I joined legions of Veterans, advocates and the brave but anonymous active duty members of OutServe to fight for, and win, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

The day after the repeal, tens of thousands of LGB service members went to work in a different world. They could finally put a picture of their significant other on their desk at work. They could finally answer the question "What did you do over the weekend?" without demurring. And yes, they could be honest about their lives, for the first time without fear of losing their jobs.

The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a rousing success for the U.S. Armed Forces. The naysayers had predicted everything from bathroom terrors to deaths on the battlefield, but none of it came to be. As the U.S. Military Academy Sergeant Major told the West Point Board of Visitors in 2012, "We braced for impact-and it wasn't even a speed bump." Gay, lesbian and bisexual service members continued to serve with honor and courage.

Sadly, that number included Army Corporal Andrew Wilfahrt and Army Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson, both killed fighting in Afghanistan in the year after repeal.

Today, 12 years later, we have proud LGBTQ Veterans like retired Army Major General Tammy Smith, Maryland Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Woods, and former Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz-Jones. Not to mention those of us who work here at VA, including OutServe "alumni" Jon Mills, Ashley Carothers, Justin Dailey, Josh Seefried and Bobat Camacho.

At VA, we strive to ensure that all Veterans-ALL Veterans-feel welcomed and respected. That's why we fly the rainbow flag during Pride Month in June. Designed by Army Veteran Gilbert Baker to represent the full range of humanity, the flag sends a message to everyone who served that VA is here for you.

We know that LGBTQ Veterans include many who continue to serve our nation beyond their military service, like those mentioned above. We also recognize that among those LGBTQ Veterans are those who were discharged just for being gay or lesbian, many with discharges less than honorable.

But that's not the last word at VA: If you file a claim or apply to enroll in VA health care, but don't have an honorable discharge, VA will AUTOMATICALLY initiate a Character of Discharge Review. We'll reach out to your branch of service for the documents related to your discharge, and we'll ask you to send us any documents you may have. We've undertaken tens of thousands of reviews, and in over 70% of cases, we find that you are eligible for some level of VA care and/or benefits.

We have two important messages for our LGBTQ Veterans: One, thank you for your service, your courage, and your integrity. And two, COME TO VA. We will do everything we can to deliver the care and benefits you've earned and so richly deserve. Give us a chance to fight for you, as you fought for us.

*Not "T" - transgender service remained banned until 2016.