Deb Price | Imagine No “Don’t Ask“

Imagine an America where an openly lesbian Navy officer is specifically reached out to by her ship’s commanding officer to ensure she knows she’s welcome to bring the guest of her choice to a party at his home, just like her shipmates.

The lesbian officer brings her partner. And they’re warmly greeted by the ship’s commander and his wife. The lesbian couple comfortably mingles with the spouses and dates of the rest of the crew. In fact, the lesbian officer feels so overjoyed by the evening that she later recalls: “We were the life of the party! It was very normal. My shipmates were very supportive of me.”

A John Lennon-esque utopian dream? Something far, far away?

Hardly. This was the real-life experience of Jenny L. Kopfstein, a Naval Academy graduate who served openly in the Navy for more than two years before she was discharged as a lieutenant junior grade.

Before coming out on the USS Shiloh, she had been upset by the conflict between the self-protective lies and half-truths required by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the core Navy values of honesty and integrity.

After coming out, as she told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 18, she won medals, a ship-handling contest, and the respect and support of her shipmates. Her two commanding officers testified — futilely — against her being discharged for being openly gay.

“I had come out in my letter officially, and I came out slowly over time to my shipmates,” she told senators. “I expected negative responses. I got none. “Ö My open service had a positive impact on the ship’s morale. I was able to treat my shipmates like human beings, and we could interact on a personal level,” she said, asking to be allowed to return to duty.

Kopfstein offered senators a peek into how being open can boost a military unit’s cohesion and morale.

Senators got a different peek — into the ugly side of the policy — from Michael D. Almy, a decorated Air Force major: Discharge proceedings started against him after his personal emails, sent while serving in Iraq, were read during a routine search. That resulted in a commanding officer ordering an in-depth search of his emails to see whether he violated “Don’t Ask.”

Almy endured 16 “devastating” months as the military worked its way toward his ouster. In the end, he received half of what his severance pay would have been under normal circumstances. And, in what he described as a “final insult,” he was escorted off his base by military police “as if I were a common criminal.”

He told senators: “My greatest desire now is to return to the Air Force as an officer and a leader protecting the freedoms of a nation that I love, freedoms that I myself was not allowed to enjoy while I was serving in the military. This is my calling in life. I hope that you will allow this to happen.”

The duo’s riveting testimony underscored the disgrace of this policy, which requires uniformed gays to stay closeted and celibate. Other recent pressure for change:

  • Shackles: Two gay Iraq veterans — Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic linguist being kicked out of the National Guard, and already discharged Army Capt. James Pietrangelo — chained themselves to the White House fence March 18 to protest DADT. Both later appeared in court in leg irons and handcuffs.
  • Senate bill: Repeal legislation introduced March 3 by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2010, has 25 co-sponsors.
  • Vets survey: Vet Voice Foundation released a survey on March 15 of 510 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. By three to one, the vets are “comfortable” with gays and would find it “acceptable” to serve with open gays.

Former Navy officer Kopfstein told Congress that the “universal attitude” of her shipmates was that DADT was “dumb.”

It’s getting easy to imagine a world without “Don’t Ask.”

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

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