Observations on the End of DADT

The latest civil-rights victory—the end of DADT—and the impact of loyal, trustworthy leadership.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

I was stationed on Guam in the mid-1980s. My squadron flew search and rescue while on the island and made regular deployments to sea. Aside from my duties as a naval aviator, I was also a division officer and had enlisted men and women reporting to me. Guam is only 13 degrees north of the equator—beach weather every day. Most military people used the military beaches; I was one of the folks who liked to travel around the island.

That’s how I discovered one of my men was gay. He was on the beach with his boyfriend, and although there was nothing going on that couldn’t be in a G-rated movie, there was no doubt that they meant more to each other than two buddies enjoying a day in the sun. When he looked my way, he froze, and I saw a flicker of fear on his face. These were the days before “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), so his legal problems would have been criminal, not administrative.

I did what needed to be done: I walked over, said hello to my sailor and introduced myself to his boyfriend. We chatted about the nice weather and I bid them a good day and left the beach so they could relax. We never discussed it again.

Fast forward to 2008. I was driving home on a Friday afternoon, looking forward to a summer weekend, when my cell phone rang. It was a 202 area-code number (Washington, D.C.) and since I’m a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel (CEP), I thought it might be important, so I answered it. It turned out to be an acquaintance, retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett. He asked me, “When are you going to talk to Admiral [Mike] Mullen (now retired) about ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?” (Watch an exclusive interview with Visconti and Admiral Mullen.)

I responded, “Great idea. How am I going to get an appointment with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs?” and he gave me an insight: Admiral Mullen had appointed me to be on the CEP—he’d take my call.

I thought about it over the weekend, emailed Admiral Mullen on Sunday and had an appointment almost immediately.

The Pentagon is an enormous building, and although I feel like I’ve been all over it through the years, I had never been to his part of the building. It surprised me that the chairman’s office is fairly convenient to the entrance of the building. Admiral Mullen’s office is contemporarily styled—not plush, not overdone or officious, but tasteful. I was ushered into Admiral Mullen’s office. He’s a disarmingly pleasant man; you can tell he grew up in Southern California.

We talked for an hour. I showed him research that illustrated how younger people simply didn’t care about orientation and that the nation had moved on. In closing, I said, “I knew people who were gay when I was on active duty. I’d imagine you know people who are gay too. Isn’t this just about taking care of our shipmates?” Although it would have been inappropriate for him to agree, I could see acknowledgment in his eyes.

On the way out, he let me open his office door. It must have weighed 400 pounds. He chuckled and told he gets everyone with that surprise.

We had one more meeting. Through Jamie and the good people at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (especially their director, Aubrey Sarvis), I was able to gather a group of retired senior officers—both gay and heterosexual—to talk about how ending DADT would be the opposite of disruptive; it would unburden the thousands of active-duty service people who are not heterosexual. We talked about how they could stop living a lie, and how the people who knew the orientation of their friends could stop living a lie. One person of our group described freezing in fear every time they were unexpectedly called into their boss’s office—would this be the end of a career?

In February 2010, Admiral Mullen stepped up and took care of his shipmates. He said this to the Senate Armed Services Committee: “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” He also said, “I have served with homosexuals since 1968.” He added, “Everybody in the military has, and we understand that.”

Later that day he tweeted, “Stand by what I said: Allowing homosexuals to serve openly is the right thing to do. It comes down to integrity.”

This year, I attended the annual Servicemembers Legal Defense Network dinner. A sense of victory was in the air. There were about 1,200 people there, many of them retired military—almost all gay—and in their uniforms. LGBT-rights pioneer Colonel Cammermeyer was there, as well as many of the group that went with me for the second meeting with Admiral Mullen—one with their same-sex spouse (having been legally able to marry). I wore miniature wings on my tux and shook hands with many fellow naval aviators. They played video clips during an intermission; when Admiral Mullen came on, he received a rousing round of applause. I couldn’t have been prouder to be an American and a veteran.

Admiral Mullen has prepared the military for the change; there was a survey, then training, then more testimony to Congress. Today it all ends. I’m sure it will be a huge non-event for those on active duty. Although gay people have served our country since the Revolution, they’ve never been able to serve openly until now. Although it seems trivial to heterosexual people who never had to fear, now we can ALL talk about what we did on the weekend.

There are those who have sent me hate mail saying that LGBT rights are not civil rights. That gay people can hide who they are. There are those who send me nasty email asking, “Why should I know what orientation a person is?” There are those who proclaim to be heterosexual but obsess about “converting” gay people to being heterosexual. All I can say is, “Haters gonna hate.” I wouldn’t hide my orientation; it’s disgusting to me that any American should have to. Gay rights don’t impinge on hetero rights. It’s anti-American to deny a group the rights that others enjoy if it doesn’t limit their own rights. I wouldn’t want to work in an environment where I don’t know who my coworkers’ loved ones are—it’s too long a work week to be that isolated. And finally, unless someone is having sex on the hood of your car, why don’t you mind your own business and think about the root cause of your obsessions?

It’s bad business to discriminate. It destroys productivity and brand image. I’m sorry, but there’s no free ride. You can’t get away with donating money to anti-gay people without damaging your brand; you can’t pass ordinances, laws and state constitutional amendments that limit gay rights and not expect progressive companies to shy away—and your best and brightest to not move out. LGBT rights are every bit civil rights, and as the ADA was a continuation of our nation’s civil-rights era, the long overdue death of DADT is another milestone toward justice.

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  • Thank you for sharing this history. Its a great day for all. I can now talk to LGBT freinds and acquaintances in the military freely without the fear that being seen talking to me or them spending time with my husband and I causing them harm in their career! Truly it’s a step toward freedom for all Americans, LGBT and straight alike.

  • Don’t let your guard down yet. The Military’s Coming Out Day is something we should all look forward to, but as implementation nears, there should be an understanding of the many legal challenges that still loom. Active duty personnel should still be cautious in coming out. That cannot be undone, and discrimination will be hard to prove. Everyone, civilian, active duty, and veterans, should loudly and publicly applaud the repeal of DADT. Marching in parades in uniform (as authorized by your local command) and showing support in the workplace are helpful and do not necessarily constitute “coming out.” But those in will still have to contend with passive discrimination, health care benefits, spousal support, children, and National Guard regulations in the states, as well as the basic difficulties with implementing any major cultural change. Be happy but also beware.

  • All I can say is, “Haters gonna hate.” …. say it Luke!!!
    Great story.Great piece of OUR history.

  • Mordechai Levin

    Your comments are brilliant. Period.
    Thank you for your diversity leadership.

  • “Haters gonna hate.” If that’s all there is to it Luke, I’d probably agree with you. But for those who believe true love is caring for their loved ones eternal souls and not just their temporal happiness, these kinds of statements trivialize the real debate.

    • Luke Visconti

      The value system of our country regarding religion is codified in the first amendment of our constitution. Americans are protected from a state religion and religion is protected from the state. Your concept of an eternal soul, and what defines caring for it, is your business and the business of your religion. Not all people believe what you believe and you do not have the imprimatur to rule over a people who believe they have free will as given by the creator. If you cause your religion to interfere with the rights of another American, then you have a problem with American values. Get with the program. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Kimiko Dennis

    Luke thank you for your eloquent words of wisdom. Simply well put!!!

  • Thank you for constitution-10. But I was not asking for anyone to believe what I believe, nor to “rule over peoples free will,” that would be a greater injustice than “forcing the good” if it could even be defined. I just objected to your characterizing others beliefs as “hate” just because their characterization of love (for others) doesn’t align with your world view.

    • Luke Visconti

      From your original post, I read your tone as assuming the moral high ground with your religious beliefs. I don’t believe that anyone’s soul is in danger if they’re gay. From your post, it’s clear that you feel otherwise. We can all go to our church/temple/synagogue of preference, where we are free to discuss our beliefs however we wish. However, in my opinion, it is hateful to deny someone their own orientation. In a workplace, evoking theocratic judgment creates an oppressive environment that destroys productivity. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

    • Luke Visconti

      In the workplace, what I (or anyone) define as hate is relevant if it aligns with the values of the company. For example, if you worked for a company that has partner benefits, a non-discrimination policy and a 100% HRC rating, I think publicly writing that being gay is a ticket to eternal damnation is against company policy – and detrimental and damaging to people who feel differently. You may believe that your religious imprimatur transcends company values, but to the degree you make that known is the degree you should be told to leave the company. Your religious beliefs do not transcend the fiduciary responsibility of the corporate leadership to the shareholders. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • The last 3 paragraph was very interesting. But still companies are shy to talk about the issue.

  • Luke, you tell the story of when you were in the Navy and ran into a gay sailor in town, and did what “needed to be done.” In this case, you ignored the UCMJ and the oath you swore to support and defend the constitution and the legal orders of your superiors … why? Because you determined that law you were asked to enforce was immoral. Ok, that’s actually laudable, to a degree. But by what basis did you determine what laws to follow and which ones to ignore? What makes a legal law immoral? One of the best explanations of this was penned by M.L King from a Birmingham jail …

    “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

    So secular society can change the laws, and in this case, they apparently changed one that vindicated your actions 25 years ago. But because society declares something legal, doesn’t make it “right” any more than slavery or segregation was “right” when it was legal. You can say “religion” has no part of how or why laws come about, but that’s just not true. If MLK were alive today, making the case that man’s law that was not in accord with God or natural law would eventually fall due to its injustice, would your response be to tell him to “get with the program?”

    • Luke Visconti

      I didn’t say religion has no part in how laws come about – that wasn’t addressed in my column – and it’s clearly not true.

      I didn’t violate the UCMJ, because the two sailors weren’t having sex. I assumed they were a couple, but as Felix Unger explained in my favorite episode of the Odd Couple television show, assume means you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.

      That said, I would be fine with violating a law that I feel is unjust – I like your St. Thomas Aquinas quote. If I were alive in the abolitionist era, I like to think I would operate an underground railroad stop. If I had been an adult during the Civil Rights Era, I hope that I would have had the courage to run the law enforcement gauntlet with everyone in Birmingham. If I were alive during our Revolution, I would have violated the law by raising a regiment and fighting the British.

      In 1998, Coretta Scott King stood solidly in defense of LGBT rights and reminded people that Dr. King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Hello Luke,

    I am a Civil Rights Investigator for a government entity located in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Often, I have to “energize” myself and stay focused on my purpose and mission as a Civil Rights Investigator. This can be a very daunting challenge! However, “movement-in-the-movement” will occur and then, I get excited! I am honored to send this message your way with what I hope is a “rousing” tone of GLEE (no pun intended) celebrating the end of DADT! As a heterosexual african-american woman, I often “DON’T HAVE TO ASK” and I certainly “CAN TELL” those environments which embrace me and those that don’t! Regardless, if I had to “live in fear” because of this designation and/or pretend that I am someone else—this would be a problem for me and my spouse. So, I want to enjoy my life as an ADULT without anymore classification than that!! I’m happy that those who “protect and serve,” are now protected and can serve in peace!

  • I was stationed on Guam– decades ago. We undoubtedly had gays troops, although I didn’t know any. But I am glad you did what you did. You didn’t ask– and they didn’t tell.

    What no one seems to differentiate is the distinction between orientation and activity. We all seem to assume everyone is sexually active, and we all have an absolute right to be. Of course, this is only a cultural norm, not a fact.As you well know there are fraternization rules in the UCMJ which still exist. No all activity is acceptable.(It happens… but it is not lawful.)

    I agree with repealing the DADT rule, but I disagree with the assumption that everyone who can engage in active sex is doing so, and should doing so, by right, This is -again– a cultural norm, but not a moral rule or mandate, nor is it permanent and unchanging.

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