Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Tell

Posted by on Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 4:39 PM

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The jubilant crowd started filling the French Quarter bar Boondock Saint around 5 p.m. on Sept. 20. By that time, nearly 18 hours had passed since the “prohibition of homosexual conduct” any more “continue(d) to be necessary to the unique circumstances of military service,” per U.S. Code Title 10, Section 654, commonly referred to as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which had been officially repealed as of 12:01 a.m.

“I never pretended, but I didn’t break the policy per se,” said Chris Savage, who was there with his longtime partner Duane Talley for the bar’s “Repeal Day Party.”

Savage, a marine science technician with the rank of E6 petty officer first class in the U.S. Coast Guard, had been serving for more than 17 years, he told Gambit.

“Last week was my first honest conversation,” Savage said. “I was talking to a lieutenant and I just referred to my partner … So often it was just such a dark cloud. It was scary. You couldn’t have the shades open in the house.”

But Savage was lucky, relatively speaking, when the policy was still active. He said he was investigated once in 2007, based on a false tip. Someone told his superior officer that he saw Savage and Talley kissing while on duty on Coast Guard property. Savage was called to make a statement to his executive officer. He demanded to see proof of the incident — which according to the witness’ allegations, supposedly took place right next to a security camera. When security tapes cleared him, the investigation was dropped.


Chris Savage, left, and partner Duane Talley
  • Chris Savage, left, and partner Duane Talley


Likewise for Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Marissa St. Pe — a former active duty soldier who served in the Afghan War in 2005. St. Pe, who told Gambit that she came out to her fellow soldiers on Sept. 20, also underwent an investigation when she was stationed in Germany.

“A girl had come into my room,” St. Pe said. “Someone saw her.”

St. Pe said the witness in her case was not considered to be a credible witness by her superiors, and for her, too, the investigation was quickly dropped.

Talley, Savage’s partner, as well as Nicole Barbe, who organized the Repeal Day party, were less fortunate. Talley said he was discharged from the Air Force in the mid-80s, before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was on the books, and when merely being gay — rather than openly gay — was banned.

Barbe, a former Navy member, was discharged in 1999. She told her Chief Petty Officer she was gay because other sailors — suspicious about her sexuality — were harassing her.

“The Navy did accuse me of lying,” Barbe said.

Barbe sought legal counsel from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a non-profit organization dedicated entirely to providing legal services to LGBT service members, and, until recently, working to put an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. According to its Web site, the organization has advocated on behalf of 10,000 members of the military since 1993. SLDN was able to get Barbe an honorable discharge.

“This [repeal] wouldn’t have happened for another decade with out the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network,” Barbe said, standing on top of a barstool and leading a toast. “Although we’ve gotten this far, there’s still a whole lot farther to go.”


Nicole Barbe
  • Nicole Barbe


Beneath the jubilation, that was the overwhelming sentiment of many of the revelers at Boondock Saint.

“I feel like this is a victory, but I also feel like we have a lot more to do,” St. Pe said.

First on the list, both St. Pe and Barbe said, is making sure same-sex partners — and in some states, husbands or wives — receive the same benefits traditionally given military spouses. The U.S. military provides health and life insurance, housing, pensions, and, under the new G.I. Bill, even college tuition to spouses of service members. But the Pentagon has so far balked at providing any benefits to same-sex partners, even in cases where a same-sex couple has been married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal.

The military cites the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defines marriage as only between one man and one woman. Since it is a federal employer, the Pentagon argues, it defers to federal, rather than state law. The following is from a Defense Department statement release in April, five months after Congress approved a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:

“The Defense of Marriage Act prohibits extension of many military benefits-such as medical care, travel and housing allowances, and other benefits-to same-sex couples. Service members will continue to have various benefits for which they can designate beneficiaries; the services will reemphasize these opportunities.”

SLDN, for one, has pledged to devote its energies to lobbying for same-sex benefits. Beyond that, the organization plans to continue its legal work, representing LGBT service members who have been subject to ridicule or harassment by peers or superiors, in a military culture sometimes accused of accepting, even condoning, anti-gay sentiment.

The question, however, remains, as to whether the SLDN will continue to see enough individual contributions — which account for more than half of its $2.2 million 2010 cash revenue (as opposed to in-kind revenue — typically gifts of resources like use of property), according to its most recent tax filing — to allow it to continue its mission forcefully. After all, its marquee issue has disappeared.

“When I was there, we used to say we were there to put ourselves out of business,” said Charlotte D’Ooge, a former fundraiser for the organization. “But, no, I don’t think they’re going to give up now.”

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