News: On the front lines of diversity
Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Tippets
NEW ORLEANS - The military has long been a microcosm of society, reflecting changing values and norms. With mission readiness at the forefront of any policy changes, the military has historically kept pace with the pulse of societal change to bring equality to its members.
The Coast Guard has its own history of change.
The Lighthouse Service began allowing women to be assigned as lighthouse keepers in the 1830s.
The Revenue Cutter Service gained its first African-American member, Michael A. Healy, on March 4, 1865.
The Coast Guard Academy was the first service academy to appoint a female cadet in 1976.
The Coast Guard had the first female commanding officer afloat in U.S. history when in 1979 Lt. j.g. Beverly Kelley took command of the Cutter Cape Newagen.
The most recent victory for equality came on Sept. 20, 2011, when Don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed. DADT barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals from serving in the military and during the course of its existence over 14,000 service members were discharged because of it.
A former Coast Guard Admiral played a major role in the repeal of the discriminatory law.
Ten years after DADT was implemented, retired Rear. Adm. Alan Steinman and two retired Army generals publicly came out of the closet.
“We all came out together in order to demonstrate that there are gay members in every rank and rate throughout the military, and to regenerate discussion on the issue and to highlight the discriminatory nature of the DADT law,” said Steinman.
Steinman started his military career in 1972, a time in history when gays and lesbians weren’t openly accepted.
“I found the prevailing attitude towards gays and lesbians to be reflective of that of our society at large, namely, to be gay or lesbian was considered to be a highly negative attribute,” said Steinman. “For those of us who grew up as boys during that era, to be a “queer” or “homo” was the worst thing you could be.”
Due to the nature of the military and society as a whole during the period of Steinman’s career, 1972-1997, he had to stay deep in the closet to keep his job. After he retired from the Coast Guard, Steinman spent eight years heavily involved in the efforts to repeal DADT.
“As a gay flag officer, I had the ability to speak on an authoritative level to members of the Pentagon, to members of Congress, and importantly, to the public, both directly in town-hall meetings and lectures and through the media in radio, print and televised interviews,” said Steinman. “In addition, I served as senior military advisor to the highly successful Call To Duty Tour, which was a group of young gay and lesbian veterans from all branches of the military, who toured the nation in 2006 to put a human face on the DADT issue. This tour set the standard for demonstrating that gay and lesbian service members were real people, indistinguishable from their straight counterparts, and not the stereotypes carried around in the public mind and perpetuated by the media.”
Steinman worked for the service members Legal Defense Network, the primary organization that fought for the repeal of DADT, on their military advisory committee.
He was also influential in convincing the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, who was tasked with implementing DADT when it was first passed into law in 1993, to change his mind on the issue. Steinman visited Shalikashvili at his home on four separate occasions. On the final visit, Steinman brought members of the Call to Duty tour with him. Present at this meeting was an openly gay submariner, which surprised Shalikashvili since it had formerly been his opinion that a submarine, with it’s all male crew, confined spaces, shared racks and deployment underway for three months at a time, was the ultimate reason why openly gay sailors could not serve in the Navy. After meeting with the submariner, Shalikashvili wrote in to the New York Times and spoke of the meeting and ultimately endorsed revisiting the DADT issue.
“It was like a nuclear bomb going off on the issue,” said Steinman. “It subsequently empowered other senior officers to speak out on the issue and helped break the logjam of anti-gay sentiment in the military.”
One of the founding tenants of the implementation of DADT was the assumption that gay or lesbians in a unit would degrade morale, weaken unit cohesion and impair combat readiness. It proved to be false not only statistically but also in everyday military situations.
In 2006, Zogby International Polling Agency conducted a poll of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans and found that 27% of enlisted respondents said they knew for certain there were gay members of their own unit; another 45% of those respondents said they highly suspected there were gay members of their units, and 73% said they had no problem working with openly gay peers.
“An increasing number of straight service members found their gay shipmates, fellow marines, fellow airmen and battle buddies to be just like themselves,” said Steinman.
“It wasn’t a big deal, these gay and lesbian shipmates weren’t the boogeyman, were not interested in sexual misconduct or other forms of misbehavior, did not disrupt unit cohesion and proved themselves just as professional as anyone else in the unit.”
Steinman was eventually invited to present a briefing on DADT to President Obama’s Transition Team after he was elected to his first term as President in 2008. He was also invited by the White House to attend the Presidential Signing Ceremony to repeal DADT, and he witnessed President Obama’s final words on the issue, “This is done!”.
Society has leaped forward drastically in the fight for gay rights. Americans who favored allowing gays to serve openly in the military went from about 40% in 1993 to nearly 80% in 2010. Even though massive achievements have been achieved for gay rights, Steinman believes complete equality isn’t going to happen over night.
“I think total equality for gay citizens, including those living in states with highly conservative populations, is going to take some time,” said Steinman. “Just as desegregation did not eliminate racism from the national scene, anti-gay sentiment, especially among deeply religious Americans, is going to take time to disappear. As Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’.”
The end of DADT marked a period for new growth for the Coast Guard. Now highly trained professionals who bring experience, skills and insight to their jobs can serve openly without fear of reprisals and can help increase, rather than decrease, unit cohesion and functionality.
Steinman’s parting words of advice for gays and lesbians serving in the military is this: “Be honest; uphold the core values of your service; comport yourself with dignity and respect for others and do not be afraid to require the same from others towards yourself.”