10 Years After DADT Repeal, LGBTQ Airmen Say More Can Change

Ten years after the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy began to phase out, gay and lesbian Airmen say there’s more the Department of the Air Force can do to support the LGBTQ community.

On Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation that led to the repeal of DADT, which for nearly two decades blocked openly gay personnel from serving in the military. The policy formally ended in September 2011 after months of preparation within the Pentagon.

“I became a better supervisor because I was able to live up to the core values of the Air Force at that time. It made me a better Airman because I was able to be open and transparent about my life,” said Jennifer Dane, an Air Force veteran who is now interim executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, the nation’s largest nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ service members and veterans.

“When you’re doing a mission together, you share a lot of yourself with your troops,” she said. “I wanted to show them I was a person just like they were.”

Several gay and lesbian Airmen who spoke to Air Force Magazine said they have become better wingmen since the fall of DADT, and are optimistic about a military where the LGBT community is better represented and accepted. All have served for more than a decade, including multiple deployments to the Middle East and elsewhere overseas.

Some wish the military health care system was better attuned to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer personnel, ranging from HIV prevention and treatment to pregnancy issues. Mental health care professionals who specialize in LGBTQ issues are hard to find as well, for both Airmen and their families, they said.

Following the Air Force’s 2018 approval of the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment known as Truvada, health care workers sometimes aren’t familiar with the steps an Airman must take to refill their prescription for the HIV-prevention drug.

“When I had to go do the bloodwork, it was hard for the lady to understand what I was asking for,” said Tech. Sgt. Donald G. Goins Jr., an Airman with the 30th Space Communications Squadron’s cyber mission defense team at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. “There should be three vials; there should be three blood tests that you have to perform.”

The Air Force offers an annual multi-day seminar where Airmen can get specialized care for living with HIV, with information on topics from diet to safe sex. While one HIV-positive Airman said that is helpful, they wish the service would take a new look at other requirements and restrictions for people with the virus.

“Every time I change a unit, I am required by [Air Force instructions] to sit down with my commander, and we have to sign a letter together about my sexual activity,” the Airman said. “Very invasive. … No one wants to have that conversation.”

Airmen have fought HIV-related issues in the courts. In early 2020, a federal appeals court sided with two Airmen who faced military discharge after testing positive for the virus in 2017. The Pentagon bars personnel with HIV from deploying to the Middle East, making them a target for discharge under the Defense Department’s “deploy or get out” policy. The Airmen argued they could deploy with medication or a policy exception, or take different jobs in the service.

Another federal judge recently ruled that DOD has “no rational basis” for blocking HIV-positive service members from commissioning as officers, another hurdle that persists for some Airmen. That limits their ability to pursue certain career moves like becoming a pilot.

Others in the Air Force pointed to progress made around in vitro fertilization and other specialized care that affects LGBT members.

Master Sgt. Kate Huguenin, the additional duty first sergeant for U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Md., noted that TRICARE now covers more of the cost of infertility clinics for same-sex couples. But if two women want to have a baby, she said, they have to pay for the sperm out of pocket.

While U.S. society has grown steadily more accepting of LGBTQ Americans over time, Airmen remain wary of setbacks to equal rights.

Huguenin recounted the night the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September. Ginsburg, a liberal icon known for her work on gender equality, was replaced on the bench by the conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

“My phone started blowing up, … [with] younger Airmen saying, ‘hey, if they overturn [Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide] because they’re talking about it, what do I need to do? How do I protect myself?’” Huguenin said.

She wonders if the Air Force can continue to recognize same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ protections even if they are no longer the law of the land. The service should be prepared to look at state policies and educate Airmen on how to protect their families in places where marriage equality is not enshrined in law, she said.

“The reason I can [permanently relocate] with my spouse is because legally, the federal government says you cannot separate legally married couples. But we legally separate significant others all the time,” said Huguenin, whose wife is in the Coast Guard. “I have absolute faith that [Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.] have my best interests at heart. Whether or not they have the legal sufficiency to protect that, I don’t know.”

Under DADT, Airmen shied away from connecting with their colleagues for fear of sparking suspicion that could lead to discharge. The years since repeal have strengthened personal and professional relationships, in ways as simple as being able to display a photo of one’s partner at work or to discuss parenting.

“It’s exciting that I’m going to retire from the Air Force and I am going to have a husband that gets to be there, literally there, in person,” said Master Sgt. Michael Burd, who works with the Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. “When I was an Airman [under DADT] and I was winning awards, my partner couldn’t go to the award ceremonies … like the heterosexual couples.”

People said they’ve felt empowered and understood by LGBTQ commanders, and used their own stories to teach and guide others as well. 

“It’s been a switch in focus away from the concept of political correctness. Now you’re not using inclusive terminology to be politically correct or, because you have to change something,” said Maj. John H. Nussbaum, an airfield assistant public works officer at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. “You’re using it to ensure that when you speak, you speak to everyone, that you’re setting the same rules for everyone, the same expectations for everyone.”

Other policies and language can shift toward being more “family-neutral,” people told Air Force Magazine. Master Sgt. Ashley N. Grady, who works in administration at the Air National Guard’s 190th Mission Support Group in Kansas, said she’d like to see things like fliers for spousal retreats acknowledge same-sex couples alongside “husband and wife.”

Some also wish the military’s legal offices took claims of LGBTQ discrimination more seriously, and call for a more diverse and LGBTQ-friendly chaplain corps. 

Many spoke of the need for broader education about the LGBTQ community, whether discussing its history during Pride Month activities each June or simply grabbing coffee with another Airman to dispel their misconceptions. Group conversations could also follow the same model some units have used to discuss racism this year.

Air Force culture will continue to evolve as leadership diversifies. DADT and other factors shrank the number of out Airmen now climbing the ladder, but some are optimistic that trend is being reversed.

Perhaps the most notable high-ranking gay military official in recent history is Eric Fanning, president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association. Fanning, a former Army Secretary and Acting Air Force Secretary, is the only openly gay person to have held senior positions in the Army, Air Force, and Navy, as well as in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. That talent pool has to widen rather than rely on a few high-profile people, advocates said.

“You couldn’t get a clearance if you were gay until 1998,” said Luke Schleusener, president of the advocacy group Out in National Security and a former speechwriter to Defense Secretaries from 2012 to 2017. “There are people who could come over one way or the other, Hill staff, that sort of thing. But it’s hard, in part because the culture has to change.”

Airmen praised openly gay leadership at their local units but worried that Air Force efforts to embrace diversity in promotions will lead to tokenism.

“The person should be put there because they are the best person for that position,” Goins said. “To say that you’re just putting that person there because of ‘X’ demeans that position and demeans the community which they belong to.”

Other changes underway across the Defense Department can bolster the LGBTQ community as well. Hiding names and photos on candidates up for promotion—a move intended to avoid racial discrimination—can aid people across the sex and gender identity spectrum, too. Some noted that the Air Force’s recent decision to allow women to wear pants with their mess dress uniforms also helps those who aren’t comfortable in the typical long, feminine skirt.

Airmen are likewise encouraged by President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration and new Air Force leaders, which they believe will usher in more inclusive military personnel policies—starting with the so-called “transgender ban.”

When asked whether the Air Force is considering any policy changes related to the LGBTQ community, Department of the Air Force spokesperson Maj. Holly A. Hess referred Air Force Magazine back to the Pentagon’s guidance on transgender service.

Hess said the Air Force and Space Force follow DOD guidance and will comply if policies change in the future.

In April 2019, the Pentagon blocked employees from newly coming out as transgender, while allowing those already diagnosed with gender dysphoria to continue living in their preferred gender. Troops diagnosed after April 2019 must continue serving according to their birth sex and cannot receive transition-related care. Those with a gender dysphoria diagnosis cannot enlist or join a military academy. The Department of the Air Force does not tally its number of transgender troops.

In 2014, the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA’s School of Law estimated as many as 15,500 transgender people were serving across the Pentagon’s Active-duty, Guard, and Reserve forces. A similar RAND Corp. study in 2016 estimated that more than 6,600 transgender troops were part of the Active-duty force, noting that not all of them would seek gender transition-related treatment.

RAND researchers found that allowing transgender personnel to access transition-related health care would increase Active-duty health costs by up to $8.4 million a year, an increase of less than 1 percent. They used private health insurance claims data to estimate military expenses.

“Even upper-bound estimates indicate that less than 0.1 percent of the total force would seek transition-related care that could disrupt their ability to deploy,” they said.

Anyone who is capable and qualified to serve should be allowed in, MMAA Interim Executive Director Jennifer Dane said.

“I think the biggest fear from ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was that we were going to be able to come out, and then have to go back in the closet because of a different policy,” she said. “The trans folks were able to come out one day, and the next day, they had to either go back in, or come really out and say, ‘Yes, I suffer from gender dysphoria.’”

The recent policy’s effects have trickled down to restrict care for service members’ children as well. “It really set back the progress we were making as an LGBTQ community,” Dane said.

The incoming Biden administration is expected to repeal restrictions on transgender service soon after taking office. Congress could go a step further and enshrine protections for transgender personnel in law.

Advocates urge DOD to roll back the ban in a way that doesn’t create further unintended consequences for military employees and their families. Intentional policymaking should carry over into other issues around gender identity and sexual orientation, they said.

For example, Generation Z—anyone born after 1997—appears set to break DOD’s male-female mold as the most gender-diverse group entering the military so far, Dane said. She knows of no policies or guidance addressing nonbinary service members and others in the queer community, but encouraged the Pentagon to be proactive.

“What do you do whenever you have recruits that don’t really fit into the standards that you have?” Dane said. “We’ve got to be ready for that, because there’s a lot of people that … do identify as such.”