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Book of Matthew: Victims of policy failures

Published: October 15, 2010
Section: Opinions


Ask and tell: Former Army helicopter pilot Lissa Young speaks in the International Lounge
PHOTO BY Alan Tran/The Hoot

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For a long time, Lissa Young never gave any thought to her sexuality.

Being a lesbian was not an option in her South Florida home, not as far as her mother was concerned. And it certainly was not an option when she entered West Point military academy in 1982, two years after graduating high school. West Point’s rigorous curriculum, training and hazing requires its cadets to develop close bonds with their fellows, making romance almost impossible.

Young did not date. In fact, up into her mid-twenties, the closest she came to falling in love was when she entered flight school in 1986 and became obsessed with aviation, and when she fantasized about female leads in movies.

But on her first assignment, everything changed when she met a girl.

“I was gone,” Young said.

She decided to go home and tell her parents.

“I’ve known that since you were five,” her father told her.

Her mother didn’t say anything.

Coming out is never easy, but for Young the stakes were much higher than normal. In the years before Bill Clinton’s presidency and the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993, gays were banned from the military, period. There were no restrictions on whether officers could ask about sexual orientation and it did not matter if a service member was open about it.

“If a man made a pass at a woman who was straight, and she resisted because she wanted to be a good soldier and not a love interest, all he had to do was say, ‘She’s a dyke,’ and she’d be gone, no questions asked,” Young recalled.

Despite the risk, Young decided that her orientation would not affect her work—if anything, she felt more relaxed, having finally accepted herself. Carefully, but not “too carefully,” she stayed in the military and stayed in the closet while still trying to maintain close bonds with her fellow service members.

After flying several missions around the world, Young was assigned to a two-year command in Alaska, where she flew search and rescue missions near Mount McKinley. In 2002—her 16th year of service—she was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. She then learned that she had been selected to be a permanent academy professor at West Point. On her 40th birthday, Young dreamed of becoming the first female graduate dean at West Point.

Then she was investigated for being a lesbian.

As it turned out, one of Young’s fellow service members, whom she knew well, had turned her in. Handcuffed and brought before her superior officers, she was asked, once, if it was true.

Young knew that she could lie and that she would probably be allowed to continue serving. But, she wondered if she do that and then return to West Point and teach young cadets about integrity.

“When it gets bad out there, all you’ve got is your integrity,” she said. “It’s what you own and it’s who you are, and it matters.”

So she told the truth and was discharged.

Young shared this story when she spoke about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to a crowded Usdan International Lounge this past Monday.

Every year, several hundred gay service members face the same ordeal that Lissa faced: One slip and then it’s all over. Every single one of them is a victim of a ludicrous policy that should never have been put into place. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” for all its pretensions of being a compromise between those who wanted a full ban of gays in the military and those who wanted that ban removed, is a sham.

Once upon a time, President Obama pledged to repeal DADT, and just recently he was handed a unique opportunity to do so. On Tuesday, Federal Judge Virginia Philips ordered the Department of Defense to stop discharging soldiers under DADT after she ruled in a case last month that the policy is unconstitutional. So far, it seems that the military will comply with the order, but the Department of Justice has chosen to appeal Philips’ original ruling.

President Obama can stop this. He does not have to allow this appeal. But it seems that he is so consumed with the idea of letting Congress repeal the policy that any other method is permanently off the table. Never mind that Congress has little ability to pass even the smallest pieces of legislation anymore.

During her talk, Young said that if she were allowed, she would consider rejoining the military. But she also admitted that she has never wanted to kill anyone.

“There is no excuse for dedicating your life to war fighting,” Young told the crowd. Instead, she wants to teach—to “bring a little humanity” to the cadets under her wing, in the hope that they will return that humanity to others if they are ever deployed to a war zone.

Unless major policy changes occur, she will never again have the chance to do this while in uniform.

But Young is luckier than most gay former service members who are trying to turn their lives around. She has spent the last three years working on a Ph.D. in social psychology and leadership, specifically studying stereotyping and prejudice. In three more years, she will apply for a civilian teaching position at West Point, which was offered to her when she was first discharged.

This is possible because the U.S. government does not discriminate based on sexual orientation—when employing civilians.