“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is over Tuesday.
The ban against gays serving openly in the military has been repealed. Starting Tuesday, gay service members cannot be discriminated against for their sexual identity. But the policy has affected the lives of thousands of people during the 18 years it was in place. NPR spoke with two of them: one who was discharged from the military under the law eight years ago; the other a gay Marine who has been keeping his sexual identity a secret for 14 years.
The Former Army Sergeant
First, Stacy Vasquez, who describes herself this way: “I like to say that I’m a government-certified homosexual.”
Vasquez was a 30-year-old Army sergeant first class when she was discharged under don’t ask, don’t tell. Someone said they saw her kissing a woman at a gay bar, and that was the end of her career.
“It ended right in front of my eyes that day,” she said. “That was a hard day.”
But it was the beginning of her very public role in the movement to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell. Vasquez became an activist, appearing with Lady Gaga at MTV’s Video Music Awards and giving countless speeches calling for an end to the ban.
Now that the ban has been lifted, Vasquez is applying to go back into the military — in the Army Reserves. But like others discharged under don’t ask, don’t tell, there are no guarantees.
“There’s no Monopoly card that says ‘go for free,’ no,” she said. “It depends on how many people they’re looking for, what background they’re looking for, what skill sets they’re looking for.
“And I have to pass my physical quals [qualifications]. I’ve gotten a little bit older. I’ve gained a little weight.”
So Vasquez may not get in, and that would be OK with her. She has different expectations now. She’s not going to have the Army career she had planned on eight years ago when she was forced out. Her high profile during the don’t ask, don’t tell debate helped her close that door — but it opened others.
“It really helped me, I think, move beyond the stages. I went through sad. I went through angry. I went through cynical. I just did it in front of a camera,” she said.
Vasquez made a name for herself being a gay soldier. But many others kept their sexual identity a secret — like U.S. Marine Maj. Darrel Choat.
This is the first time Choat has publicly acknowledged that he’s gay. He wrote an essay set to be published in a book on don’t ask, don’t tell coming out in a few weeks. In it, he writes, “I am a patriotic American. I am an officer of the Marines who loves country, Corps and my Marines. I am doing the best to serve proudly and honorably and I happen to be gay.”
NPR spoke with Choat at the suburban home he shared with his former partner. He was wearing his Marine fatigues. His hair was clipped short. Choat proudly showed off a photo of him and President Obama from 2010 when he worked at the White House as part of the ceremonial Marine detail.
Choat joined the Marine Corps 14 years ago when he was 34 years old. He had to get a waiver for his age, but the Nebraska native was dead set on being a Marine.
“You know, swearing an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and bear true faith and allegiance to the same — and I take that very seriously,” he said.
When he signed up, Choat knew he was gay. But he also knew that joining the Marines meant keeping quiet about that part of his life.
“I was a little cavalier. I thought, ‘Hey, I’m squared away, I know who I am, this isn’t going to be a big deal.’ And over time, it became a big deal and it’s something that just kind of creeps up on you — the small compromises, the things that you do, how you have to bisect yourself, bisect your life.”
Choat rose through the ranks. He did two tours in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 during some of the worst fighting of the war. He had personal relationships, but he kept them quiet. Then last year, everything changed. The Pentagon was reviewing don’t ask, don’t tell. The federal courts were weighing in. The commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Gen. James Conway, said the vast majority of Marines would not want to room with someone who’s openly gay. Choat didn’t believe what he was hearing.
“When you’ve got senior leaders in the Marine Corps saying things about the Marines they’ve served beside and served with, you just think, ‘What is going on here? Why are you disrespecting these Marines? Why are you disrespecting your Marines?’ “
At that point, a year ago, Choat wanted to speak out but couldn’t. So he found another way to get his message across. As a student at the Marine Corps University, he decided to write his thesis on don’t ask, don’t tell. He designed a survey to gauge opinion on the policy, and he sent it out to other Marines. He remembers sitting in front of the computer screen, right after he had pressed “send.”
“I mean, it was just like this huge lump was in my throat, and I thought, ‘Oh My God. What have I done? What have I done?’ ” he recalled.
After all, he was a single 47-year-old man who didn’t talk about women.
“If I’m suddenly doing a thesis on don’t ask, don’t tell, I just thought this bright spotlight is going to be shining on me and people are going to start asking questions, ‘Well, what’s up with Choat?’ You know? And I was afraid of that,” he said.
But Choat admits that part of him wanted people to know. He set himself on a collision course, knowing full well that people were going to figure out that he’s gay. And some did — though this is the first time he’s talking publicly about it. He has gay friends in the military who told him not to go public — that it’ll be the end of his career. And they are choosing to stay quiet.
“They don’t want people to think less of them,” he said. “They’re afraid of friends turning their backs on them, so they’re not going to come out.”
Choat said he’s not sure what happens next. But he said all of that talk about Marines threatening to leave the force over this issue is nonsense.
“When they say, ‘Well, you know, I couldn’t share a fighting position with a Marine that’s gay,’ or anything like that, I say, ‘Wow. So gay Marines have that much power that they can totally disarm you and defeat you just by their simple presence? And you call yourself a Marine? Come on, dude. What’s your problem? Get over it.’ “
But it’s taken him a long time to get to this point. Choat wanted to make clear that he’s speaking only for himself, not the Marine Corps, which shows how controversial this subject still is within the military.
So, after 18 years and more than 11,000 discharges, these are the stories of just two people affected by don’t ask, don’t tell.
For Vasquez, who’s been fighting for repeal since she was forced out of the military, Tuesday marks the end of a long battle. For Choat, going to work, even just saying “hi” to other Marines, marks the beginning.
“I expect some of them to shake my hand and say, ‘Hey, don’t care.’ And I also expect others to, you know, not deal with me, not want to deal with me, to feel uncomfortable around me. I know they will. You know, so be it,” he said. “I’m an American, I’m a Marine, I haven’t done anything but serve my country honorably. That’s it.”
The Marine Corps ball is coming up in November. Choat says he’s planning to go as he does every year. But this time, he’s bringing a date.