Pentagon's Report On 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Due

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The Pentagon is expected to release a report Tuesday on the potential effects of repealing the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy — which bans gays from serving openly. Host Michel Martin speaks with Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network and Evelyn Thomas, a former Marine Corps corporal who kept her sexual orientation secret while serving.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we're back to an important issue in American politics: Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's the law that effectively bans homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

Tomorrow, the Defense Department will release a long-waited report meant to examine the potential effects of repealing the ban. The Senate Armed Services Committee starts to debate the report's findings on Thursday. The Washington Post has already reported that the study will show that more than 70 percent of respondents said the effect of lifting the ban would be positive, mixed, or non-existent.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on Anu Bhagwati. She's the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. That's a group that provides support for women serving in the military. Also with us is Evelyn Thomas. She's a former corporal in the United States Marine Corps, and she's the founder of The Sanctuary Project, that is a ministry for gays and lesbians serving in the military. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ANU BHAGWATI (Executive Director, Service Women's Action Network): Thank you.

Ms. EVELYN THOMAS (Founder, The Sanctuary Project): You're welcome. Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Anu, I'd like to just ask you about the report, that the findings had been leaked that we formerly released, and they're being released a little earlier than had been expected. That 70 percent figure, does that sound right to you? Military members who say that lifting the ban would either be a positive effect, it would be mixed or have no effect.

Ms. BHAGWATI: That sounds about right. Very few people on the outside were surprised by these numbers. I mean the military over time has definitely proven, you know, through surveys that it is not going to be shocked if Don't Ask, Don't Tell is repealed tomorrow or anytime soon. So, I think, if anything, this report and this survey has just provided political cover to politicians who wanted to make sure they would get reelected and have their constituents' backs.

MARTIN: Evelyn, I wanted to ask you, and we're glad that you're with us, in part because you were a Marine. And the Marines are the one service where there seems to be more resistance to repealing don't ask, don't tell. Why do you think that is?

Ms. THOMAS: The new commandant of the Marine Corps is strongly in support of the don't ask, don't tell policy because it has a political aspect on it. In the past 10 years you've seen a transformation in the chaplain corps where you have people who in their civilian life were ministers and they preached a right wing theology and enlisted in the armed forces. And using their power and influence on the young Marines to impact them on an aspect of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people serving in the military.

MARTIN: OK. Anu, what's your perspective on that? Why do you think that the Marines seem to be the most resistant to repealing don't ask, don't tell?

Ms. BHAGWATI: Sure. Well, we were told about 40 percent of the Marine Corps is concerned about lifting the ban, but that wasn't surprising to me either as a former Marine officer. I think the Marines consider themselves to be the most elite branch of the military. And part of that elitism is founded on this notion that very few people make it to the Marines or want to be Marines. Only those that can truly be Marines make the cut.

So, you know, there's an undercurrent homophobia, clearly, but also sexism and racism in the Marine Corps, in particular, that I think allows it to be this kind of exclusive branch, the one that wants to remain kind of the last - to integrate, the last to kind of catch up to society's norms.

MARTIN: Well, the services, all the services are inherently discriminatory in the sense that you have to meet certain physical requirements to enlist, right?

Ms. BHAGWATI: That's true. But the Marine Corps does consider itself sort of exceptional service.

Ms. THOMAS: I agree with Anu that they consider them the best, the elitist. And you also have to understand that sexism and homophobia are deeply embedded in the military culture, and despite the Department of Defense claims that the military is an equal opportunity employer.

MARTIN: Now, both of you are former Marines. And, let's see, Evelyn, you served before don't ask, don't tell came into effect, right?

Ms. THOMAS: I actually, yeah, I served before the enactment of don't ask, don't tell. I served during a time when there was a ban on gays.

MARTIN: An outright ban on gays. And so, can I just ask, what did - were you aware of your sexual orientation when you enlisted? I just wanted to ask how you - how did you cope with it while you were in the service? What did you do?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, that's interesting. I enlisted on May 17th, 1986. I was 17 at the time. I also came out to my mom at 17. And one of the process that you have to go through when becoming a service member is you have to go through a mental, physically and emotional exam to make sure you can endure the rigorous training to become a service member.

And I remember the day that I was sworn in and it came to the mental part of the examination. I walked into this room and in this room there wasn't any windows. The walls were made out of cinderblocks. And there was this Army sergeant sitting at the table. And on the table there was a sheet of paper and a pen in his hand. And he instructed me to come to the table. And he explained to me that this is the mental part of your examination.

And he asked me two questions. The questions were: Are you a homosexual and have you ever participated in homosexual activity? And I was shocked because no one in my family ever told me whom I was and whom I love was wrong. And that was the first time that I realized that who I was and whom I love was considered illegal. And so I had to compromise my integrity.

MARTIN: So you didn't even thinking about it before you enlisted. That wasn't even a part of your thought process enlisting...

Ms. THOMAS: It wasn't thought in my process because, once again, whom I was and whom I love wasn't considered wrong or illegal. And so, I thought, here I am, 17 years old, an African-American woman. I was a straight-A student. I made the honor roll, but I came from a very poor family. And I didn't have the funds or the money to attend college. And what was a strong motivation for me to enlist in the armed forces was the Montgomery GI bill. The Army said at the time, if you dedicate four years of your life to our country, serving our country, we will help you attend college.

MARTIN: So, you did successfully serve. You were honorably discharged back in 1991. And Anu, tell us what do you think is next. I know now that of course there's going to be a change in direction in the House come January. What is your sense of what happens next? I assume that there is a - supporters of repealing don't ask, don't tell would like the Democrats to move aggressively now.

Ms. BHAGWATI: Absolutely. And following the report, as you said, we'll have hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the end of this week. And then hopefully don't ask, don't tell will be put before the Senate for a full vote. We're not sure if the Democrats have enough votes among Republicans to push this forward. I would say advocates believe this is our last best chance to get don't ask, don't tell repealed because we did lose a lot of friends in Congress with the election. And so, you know, we're pushing hard. But it's anybody's guess.

MARTIN: But do you assume, though, that the new Republican majority does not support repealing don't ask, don't tell?

Ms. BHAGWATI: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Why do you think that?

Ms. BHAGWATI: It comes down to deep-seated homophobia among conservatives. And it's nothing new.

MARTIN: But they also, but members of the majority may also have a lot of respect for the opinion of the military leadership and the civilian leadership, which says they do support repealing it.

Ms. BHAGWATI: Well, I think, you know, conservatives and politicians will do their best to make sure that repeal doesn't happen. If repeal does happen, and we're hoping that's the case, then, you know, the military, all the branches of the military will actually accordingly - the Marine Corps included. I mean, I think the Marine Corps will take particular pride in, you know, despite kind of wanting to buck the system, having to enforce the new policy once repeal happens.

So, it'll take some time, I think, for the culture to catch up, for homophobia to disappear, if that's possible. But definitely once orders are given, the Marine Corps and all the other branches will execute.

MARTIN: And, Evelyn, final thought from you. What are you hearing? As I said, you are the founder of a ministry for people who are gay and lesbian who are serving in the military. What are you hearing from the people with whom you work about their state of mind, about the debate as it's going forward? Are people hopeful? Are they optimistic? Are they feeling - what are they feeling? What's going on?

Ms. THOMAS: Surprisingly, you have a lot of people that I've worked with have faith and hope that this repeal will happen. But on the flip side, they would hope that we'd have more support in the government, especially from the Black Congressional Congress, because as we know, the largest percentage of people impacted by the don't ask, don't tell are women of color.

And their concern is that they don't have enough people with the Black Congressional Congress coming out and supporting and supporting the repeal of don't ask, don't tell because they've been silent so far on this issue.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see. Go ahead.

Ms. THOMAS: There's hope that it will take place, but like Anu stated, it's going to take some time for the culture to catch up with the social transformation.

MARTIN: Evelyn Thomas is a former corporal in the United States Marine Corps. She's the founder and executive director of The Sanctuary Project. That is a ministry for gays and lesbians serving in the military. She was kind enough to join us, despite, as you can hear, a bad cold, from her home in northern San Diego County, California.

Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, a group that provides advocacy on behalf of women serving in the military. She's also a former Marine officer. And she joined us from our bureau in New York. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BHAGWATI: You're welcome.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you.

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