By: Barry Sapp and Christopher Shannon for The Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative (YBGLI). They are members of the YBGLI Organizing Committee. YBGLI is a national movement of young Black men addressing issues disproportionately affecting their peers.
“A member of the armed forces shall be separated from the armed forces under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Defense if that the member has engaged in, attempted to engage in, or solicited another to engage in a homosexual act or acts.” [10 USCS § 654].
September 20, 2014 marks the 3rd anniversary of the repeal of the “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy. This legislative change was monumental in transforming the way the SGL (same gender loving) community maneuvered through the trenches of the Armed Forces. The Clinton Administration instituted the policy prohibiting the discrimination of gay and lesbian members of the armed forces; however, this policy also prohibited “out” members of the gay and lesbian community from enlisting in the military and if a current servicepersons’ orientation was revealed they could be dishonorably discharged. After nearly a decade of societal pressure, the antiquated policy was overturned by an executive order. The repeal of DADT was pivotal in the quest of equality for the LGBT community. It’s important that as time goes on we acknowledge this journey, as well as the voices of soldiers in this battle. In order to aid this goal, we are providing a platform for the voices of individuals who have served or currently serve, and will be telling their stories.
Formally, I am known as Christopher Shannon, but in the “gay world,” I am known as Kris. When I was 18, I joined the Army National Guard. The day I joined, I sat at a desk in front of an older White man and he bluntly asked me: “Do you practice homosexual acts?” I answered his question, but my answer was a lie. I justified my actions with my desire to protect and serve this country in our nation’s armed forces. Seven years have passed since I told that lie, and although much has changed…much has stayed the same. It’s been a few years since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and it seems that many of us haven’t really grasped what this means. For many Americans this meant that “the gays” were allowed to join the military, but for those of us, that were gay and currently serving in the military, it signified an opportunity for us to breathe and be ourselves. The repeal of DADT was intended to remove the fear of persecution and allow members to serve amongst one another while living their truth. However, for many of us this transition has not been easy. The LGBT community is accepted legally, but there is still much pressure to conceal your orientation to avoid judgment and adverse treatment. The days of being booted out of the military for your orientation are gone, but the discriminatory attitudes are still present. The media has painted a cheery image of progress and change within the military, and although change has occurred, progress is still lacking in many areas.
In the spirit of transparency and providing further perspective on the impact of the policy change, I feel that it’s important to share my own experience as a former service member in the United States Army Reserves. I entered the service during the winter of 2003, and in the midst of self-discovery I found myself serving Uncle Sam. Being a young Black man grappling with questions of sexuality and orientation left me often times frustrated. This frustration became further complicated with fear after I joined the service. While serving in the military, I learned early on that although DADT prohibited harassment it didn’t stop speculation and it fostered a greater sense of oppression that I had known all too well. During the summer of 2006, I was placed in Columbia, SC to train at Ft. Jackson. While there I befriended a sergeant in my training class. I soon found out that he was also SGL and we became fairly close. This closeness sparked speculation from some of our peers, who in turn reported their “concerns” to our command. Shortly after, I found myself before the company’s Commander reciting aloud the Army’s policy on homosexuality and was asked if I could comply. I lied and stated that I could comply and would not act on any homosexual or “immoral” acts while serving. This appeased the commander, but left me broken. I left his office with the bitter taste of self-betrayal in my mouth and shame in my heart. Not shame for my orientation, but shame that I chose to hide my truth in a desperate attempt to survive in the service. Not only was this experience humiliating, it was a clear indication in the faultiness of DADT. Mere speculation and gossip was enough to end soldiers’ careers over something that had no impact on their ability to perform. Although I somehow managed to make it out intact, I witnessed many of my brothers and sisters become a fatality of that policy. Many are still picking up the pieces. My experience was one fracture in the damaged foundation of DADT. Eventually, the foundation completely crumbled, but it isn’t enough for us to eradicate discriminatory policies. It is the duty of the SGL community to hold the “powers that be” accountable to ensure that progress continues and equity is more than an option, but the standard. We have come a long way, but the fight is far from finished. The anniversary of DADT is a reminder of our victories, as well as motivation to overcome our current obstacles. The hurdles before us are nothing but victories in the making; however, this will not happen without our community lifting its voice. The time is here and so are we. Shall we begin?