and everyone else just sits there I guess

Panelist Rob Cain discusses his DADT experiences

This Thursday, Milvets and GS alliance hosted a panel on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. We sent Senior Staff Writer Ross Chapman to check it out.

It’s been four years since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), an ineffective military initiative to accept LGBT individuals into the armed forces while simultaneously not accepting LGBT individuals into the armed forces. Columbia is once again the bastion of military presence in the Ivy League, with 95% of the Ancient Eight’s US veterans residing in New York. Columbia University Milvets (Military Veterans) and GS Alliance teamed up to host a talk in the Lerner Party Space yesterday about the effects of discrimination and eventual integration which prominently featured members of the Columbia community. You can watch the whole thing on Periscope here.

The panel, hosted by the president of Milvets, consisted of four speakers. Alex Nicholson (far left) was an army interrogator (sorry, human intelligence collector) who was discharged at 20 for his sexuality. He became the Executive Director of Servicemembers United and fought for DADT repeal, talking with officials at the highest levels of the military on the subject. Kristen Rouse (2nd from left) joined the military the year after DADT went into effect, and has 21 years of service under her belt. Her writing on this subject and others have appeared in The New York Times and Salon. Mark Conley (middle) is a doctoral student of psychology at Columbia who is a retired lieutenant commander. His research focuses on social psychology, and he provided a scientific and experiential perspective on DADT. Finally, Rob Cain, current student and president of GS Alliance, served for six years as a linguist at five different stations before being honorably discharged for his sexuality.

Rob, Alex, and Kristen all joined the armed forces fully aware of what they weren’t supposed to tell. Rob looked at the military straight out of high school, and during the process, a recruiter explicitly asked his sexuality. He wasn’t ready to come out. He did enlist when he was 26, and his sexuality eventually came up at most of the places he was stationed. Alex was “willing to go back into the closet” to serve. When he joined, DADT seemed so reasonable. But he soon found out that it meant “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Happen to be Found Out.” Kristen joined so soon after DADT was passed that the recruitment forms still had questions about sexuality, but they had been blacked out with marker. She considered hiding her sexuality “part of [her] service to serve [her] country.”

DADT was an inconsistent mess, according to the panelists. “What struck me was the randomness of it,” Rob recounted. Most of his commanding officers didn’t care, but he heard the horror stories of DADT’s application in other parts of the military. While some officers specifically tried to rat out LGBT servicemen, others would know the boyfriends of military personnel and think nothing of it. At his last station, Rob’s luck ran out, and he was set to be discharged for his sexuality. Thanks to a lot of work and connections, Rob was able to get his discharge changed to an honorable one. Alex was outed as gay and discharged, after which he went back to undergrad. He wouldn’t tell most people that he was ever in the army to avoid a series of very uncomfortable questions. Kristen made her way through DADT without getting discharged, but still faced consequences. It was hard to have a relationship in which she could never be seen with her partner.

Gay discrimination policies also had huge psychological effects on LGBT soldiers and veterans. Mark described a 2014 study on the hidden costs of hiding stigmas. While most commentators who opposed gays in the military claimed that it would reduce unit cohesion and order, several studies found the opposite. What these policies did was say to servicemen and women, “we know that 80% of you disapprove of gay integration. Now, they are hiding among you.” DADT increased suspicion and caused huge spikes in anxiety for closeted soldiers. The effects of hiding sexuality eroded the military, not the presence of LGBT individuals. “Nobody knew shit about me,” said Kristen, describing what it was like to have to hide parts of herself. “I was so isolated.”

But it wasn’t all awful during DADT. For one, most of the defense sector aside from the military itself was relatively progressive on LGBT issues. The NSA hired a lot of people directly after sexuality discharges, and Veterans Affairs was (and is) well regarded for its benefits for trans veterans. Absurdly, federal law prohibited companies with federal contracts from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation. So while the military could kick out members for being gay, the private sector supporting it explicitly could not.

The fight against DADT began soon after its implementation. Alex got involved with Servicemembers United, an advocacy group working against discrimination. There were very few gay veterans in the discussions around DADT, which Alex found crazy. He described it as analogous to a room full of men trying to make decisions on women’s rights. The fact was that LGBT individuals wanted to serve, but they weren’t allowed to. Some wanted to join to better themselves, and others out of a duty to serve their country. Some wanted to prove themselves individually, while others wanted to show that the LGBT community as a whole is just as capable as any other. Just like Kristen felt when DADT was first passed, people rushed into recruitment centers when it was struck down.

“The story of the military has also been the story of who gets to be an American citizen,” Kristen said. And the fight goes on for LGBT rights in the military and the world. There are still policies in place preventing trans individuals from serving, and women from participating in combat. But that’s not people from fighting – those policies can be finessed around. But these people have necessary training and support taken away from them because of their gender identity. The military fight for freedom and equality continues, domestically and across the world.

Columbia’s relationship with the military is undeniable. The School of General Studies has over 400 military veterans, one of the largest programs among elite American universities. But for a while, Columbia, in line with its other liberal policies, was known for its opposition to the military as whole.

Back in the ancient days of Spring 2011, the hot topic for debate on campus wasn’t sexual assault, food insecurity, or divestment, but the ROTC. With the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 set to take effect in a few months, Columbia had new fervor to reinstate their storied Naval ROTC (NROTC). Columbia’s training corps, started in 1916, trained 23,000 midshipmen in World War II, and at times rivaled the Naval Academy in Annapolis in terms of size. Columbia was such an important location for naval training that (so the stories go) John Jay was, for military administrative reasons, called the U.S.S. John Jay during World War II. The ROTC program had faced periodic disapproval from the student body through its existence, and the 1968 protests (and the Vietnam War in general) tipped the scales against the military. Columbia phased the program out in 1969. The military never stopped pushing for the reinstitution of programs at Columbia.

But the fight against ROTC changed in the 1990’s. Following the 1992 murder of Allen Schindler, a sailor killed by shipmates for being gay, the military’s discriminatory policies became the primary target of student opposition. University Senate minutes from 1995 show that the Student Affairs Committee objected to military recruiters on campus on the basis “that the military still recognizes homosexuality as a disqualifying trait.”  The 1993 passage of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was considered a compromised victory by some activists, including panelist Kristen Rouse, but it wasn’t enough for for Columbia. Gay discrimination drove down ROTC revival efforts in 2005 by a margin of 51-11 in the University Senate, and 2008 efforts, following a mess of a student survey, fell through as well. But after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Columbia students turned their opinions on the military and reinstated ROTC in 2011 pending DADT’s going into effect (although that decision did not come without its fair share of protests to the contrary). The vote, 6 years, after the last USenate debate on the topic, this time had 51 representatives in favor of ROTC. For a fuller primer with more links on the topic, see “Everything You Need To Know About ROTC At Columbia.”

Event photo via Alexander McCoy/Milvets