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In Service, In the Truth 

Charles Maldonado on the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and what gay and lesbian servicemembers in New Orleans think is coming next

click to enlarge Chris Savage, a marine science technician with the U.S. Coast Guard, and his partner Duane Talley celebrate the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
  • Chris Savage, a marine science technician with the U.S. Coast Guard, and his partner Duane Talley celebrate the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
Amid a celebration of last week's repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, gay and lesbian service members and former service members still see challenges ahead.

A 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 ... 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service," per U.S. Code Title 10, Section 654, commonly referred to as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which was officially repealed as of 12:01 a.m.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, told Gambit he has served for more than 17 years.

"Last week was my first honest conversation," he 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 relatively lucky when the policy was 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. When Savage was summoned to make a statement to his executive officer, he demanded to see proof of the incident — which according to the witness' allegations took place right next to a security camera. When security tapes cleared Savage, the investigation was dropped.

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

"A girl had come into my room," she said. "Someone saw her." St. Pe's superiors did not consider the witness who reported the incident to be credible, however, and 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 was discharged from the Navy 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. She sought legal counsel from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing legal services to LGBT service members and, until recently, putting an end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The group was able to get Barbe an honorable discharge. SLDN's website says the organization has advocated on behalf of 10,000 members of the military since 1993.

"This [repeal] wouldn't have happened for another decade without the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network," Barbe said, standing on top of a barstool at the party and leading a toast. "Although we've gotten this far, there's still a whole lot farther to go."

St. Pe and others at the Boondock Saint shared the sentiment.

"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 husbands or wives in states that allow same-sex marriage — receive the same benefits traditionally given military spouses. The military provides health and life insurance, housing, pensions and, under the new G.I. Bill, college tuition to spouses of service members. But so far the Pentagon has balked at providing any benefits to same-sex partners, even when the couple is married.

The military cites the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defines marriage as being 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 released 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 has pledged to lobby for same-sex benefits and will continue to provide legal representation for 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 is whether the SLDN will continue to receive enough individual contributions, now that its marquee issue has disappeared, to continue its mission. Individual contributions account for more than half of SLDN's $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.

"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 SLDN. "But, no, I don't think they're going to give up now."

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