10 years after “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” a new world for LGBTQ servicemembers

U.S. Air Force Reserve officer Christina Wiskowski (right) with her wife Margaretta (left).

Republished from our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News where this story first appeared. 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the 1994 policy that barred openly LGBTQ people from serving in the military, officially ended on September 20, 2011. For tens of thousands of servicemembers, including Christina Wiskowski, the end of DADT meant more than just being able to come out at work.

“Once President Obama signed the repeal, for the first time, my military self could be a 100 percent accurate representation of who I am,” Wiskowski told PGN. “I could make calls home to my now-wife Margaretta while I was on deployment and not worry about being outed. And I have a lot of peace of mind knowing that my wife can also receive benefits or services offered to other military spouses.”

Wiskowski, an officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, served four tours overseas during her 20 years in the military. She now lives in Montgomery County and works as a senior manager at Comcast NBCUniversal. She credits the end of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” with allowing her to “be a better and more present leader, as I can fully integrate my civilian and military lives.”

In addition, Wiskowski’s wife now serves as her squadron’s “Key Spouse,” a commander-appointed position responsible for providing peer-to-peer support for the families of military servicemembers, especially during periods of deployment. 

“It’s a highly visible role, and having a same-sex spouse of an officer in that position sends a clear message that all families are welcome and valued,” Wiskowski said.

That positive message is radically different from the era of DADT, when LGBTQ servicemembers were forbidden from disclosing anything to do with their sexual orientation or gender identity —  including any mention of partners or spouses — or else risk being discharged. Over 13,000 troops were discharged under DADT from 1994 to 2010. And that number doesn’t include the numerous servicemembers who were forced out before 1994, the most famous of whom was Leonard Matlovich. Matlovich purposely outed himself to protest the military’s ban on gay people, and was featured on the cover of TIME magazine and publications across the country. Despite his story becoming well known, Matlovich was discharged in October 1975 for coming out. In the ensuing decades, many more LGBTQ troops were forced to leave the military against their will, solely because they either came out or someone found out about their LGBTQ identity.

But, 46 years after Matlovich, LGBTQ servicemembers have no such fear of discharge.

“We have young men and women who joined the military in October 2010 that have never known a life under “Don’t ask, don’t tell,”” said C. Dixon Osburn, author of “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”” and cofounder of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “They can serve freely and to their full potential. I feel an enormous sense of pride for our community that has overcome so many obstacles in a short period in the past decade. Today is an exclamation point that equality is possible.”

Through his work at SLDN, Osburn worked with advocates to help bring an end to DADT. One such advocate was former Rep. Patrick Murphy, who represented Bucks County from 2007 to 2011 and who led the repeal efforts in Congress.

“The repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a major milestone to equality for our LGBTQ troops serving in uniform,” Murphy told PGN. “I was proud to join my colleagues in leading this effort while I was serving in the House. When I was in Iraq, we didn’t care who our battle buddies loved or how they saw themselves —  they would have our backs when the going got tough. The repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ten years ago, as well as President Obama’s order to allow transgender troops to serve five years later when I was Acting Secretary of the Army, finally made military policy line up with the reality on the ground.”

Despite the gains that LGBTQ servicemembers have seen in the past decade, there are still instances of discrimination against them, including former President Trump’s 2019 ban on trans servicemembers (which was overturned two years later by President Biden), as well as local instances of mistreatment and intimidation. Both Osburn and Murphy encouraged those in command to continue to lead the way in pushing for equality.

“Commanders must be vigilant and hold accountable those who engage in discriminatory conduct,” Osburn said. “There are more than 60,000 LGBT service members serving today, and commanders know that if they want to get the best out of their units they must create conditions of dignity and respect for all.”

Murphy noted that the military will still not accept intersex or HIV-positive recruits and that many veterans who were discharged under DADT are not receiving the benefits they should be entitled to.

“There is a lot of work left to be done,” Murphy said, “but we are lucky that there are many ways you can support the fight. Reach out to nonprofits like the Modern Military Association of America — these are the organizations who are doing the work today to achieve full equality in the military.”

(Editor’s Note: After this article was originally published, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a statement on September 20 that read in part: “Today, we are also taking steps to clarify VA policy for Veterans who were given other than honorable discharges based on homosexual conduct, gender identity or HIV status. Under this newly-issued guidance, VA adjudicators shall find that all discharged service members whose separation was due to sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status are considered “Veterans” who may be eligible for VA benefits, like VR&E, home loan guaranty, compensation & pension, health care, homeless program and/or burial benefits, so long as the record does not implicate a statutory or regulatory bar to benefits.”)