Serving Under Duress

Lesbian service members talk about military life in the closet

Margarethe Cammermeyer was a colonel who served as the chief nurse for the Washington State Army National Guard and who admitted being a lesbian during a security clearance interview. She remains the highest-ranking military official to acknowledge her homosexuality while still in the service for which, despite an otherwise exemplary record, Cammermeyer was discharged.

I was the court reporter in Cammermeyer’s case. The most interesting thing about the parade of deputy defense secretaries, admirals and generals called to testify in her case was that all staunchly claimed openly gay and lesbian unit mates so disturbed the service members serving alongside them that units’ combat readiness was at risk. You’d think being gay was a greater threat to the armed forces than enemy bullets.

Now comes “Secret Service: Untold Stories of Lesbians in the Military,” a collection of interviews with lesbians who have served or are still on active duty in the various branches of the military. From their descriptions of military life, the greatest threat to the functioning of a military unit is the sexist attitudes of straight men.

The women telling their stories come up against this countless times. It doesn’t matter if they’re what you might call butch women or lipstick lesbians, in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, or the years they serve—ranging from the Vietnam-era to more recent enlistments. They all describe fending off the sexual advances and downright harassment of their male colleagues.

As Rebecca D. says of her time in the Air Force, “Every supervisor I ever had hit on me… one of my commanding officers, he was married, and he was hitting on me.”

Several times women are told that if they don’t sleep with at least one male colleague, they’ll be reported as lesbians.

This is not to say that the vast majority of heterosexual men in the American armed forces are predators, nor does “Secret Service” make this case. What the interviews demonstrate is a strong misogynistic undercurrent in the “boys club” military. It’s tolerated or ignored by enough service members that the men who actively practice it can do it with impunity.

Over and over these women describe commanders stating aloud their dislike of women in the ranks, denying basic things like leave time to women and granting it to men, assigning women the hardest duties or, in one case, making a woman wear gloves because her superior objected to her manicured nails.

“Secret Service” also makes it obvious that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” far from being a consistent policy, is whimsically and capriciously enforced. “Major Maureen” talks about how she was out to her commander and several colleagues in the states, but when transferred overseas found herself under an executive officer on a crusade against gays in the military, “investigating field-grade officers en masse.”

A 20-year veteran nearing retirement, Major Maureen realized at that point “that at any time I might run across a commander who would feel so strongly about sexual orientation that he or she might take a small piece of information and conduct a widespread investigation. I felt very vulnerable.”

The policy also leaves them in the position of having to prove their sexuality to avoid discharge. Vicki Wagner was spotted kissing another woman by the wife of a fellow soldier who then reported the incident to their commander. Despite having a boyfriend at the time, and affidavits from several men she had slept with, Wagner was discharged for a “propensity for homosexual conduct,” even though her only infraction was a same-sex kiss.

The other psychological stress is the anti-gay policy itself. Circumventing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” requires far more than just a wary attitude. Every aspect of a person’s life becomes subject to inspection. Simple actions civilians take for granted become evidence that must be concealed. Many of these women recount devoting so much intellectual and psychic reserves to just avoiding detection it’s a wonder they could do their job, much less perform them with any level of competence.

Several became as deceptive as double agents. Navy Captain Diana Kerry describes it well when she talks about all the things she and her girlfriend did, because as two military women living in the same house, they knew they were probably under constant surveillance by the NCIS, the navy’s criminal investigators.

“You had to pay attention that nobody could see in any window– period, ever. You never did an inadvertent touch anywhere outside. You had to pay attention that two sets of bedroom lights went on and off at different times. You had to walk in front of windows so that the shadows would indicate that you were in different rooms. Stuff like that. It’s almost like you have to have a schedule. It’s very, very taxing.”

As “Major Maureen” a current active-duty army officer says about hiding your life, “It’s a tremendous amount of energy, and it’s hard. It’s hard to keep up on a daily basis, and that’s the kind of thing that messes with your soul.”

And the worst part is that the policy makes gays and lesbians distrustful of each other as well as their heterosexual colleagues. Brenda Hammer describes being wary of the women on her softball team because a lesbian with the CID, the Army’s internal investigators, warned her that one of the females on the team was posing as a lesbian to expose others. When Hammer finally did come under CID’s scrutiny, her heterosexual colleagues abandoned her.

“My roommate at the time, who was not gay, moved out because she could not handle the guilt by association…she said, ‘I can’t put my career on the line.’”

What’s amazing is the courage and patriotism of these women who, despite all this—harassment, forfeiture of pensions, and even possible imprisonment –chose to remain in the military. The women of “Secret Service” all talk about their love of the armed forces, of the dedication it requires, the character it can build for those willing to let it.

For this reason “Secret Service” demonstrates why lifting the ban would benefit the U.S. armed forces. Who wouldn’t want soldiers this dedicated? Right now these people are considered unworthy to serve simply because they are gay.

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