Firsthand Experience of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

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A repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy takes effect on Tuesday, officially allowing gay and lesbian troops to serve openly for the first time in U.S. history. In the 18 years under the policy, nearly 14,000 gay and lesbian service members were discharged. A new book, Our Time: Breaking the Silence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” chronicles the experiences of both gay and straight service members through first-person essays, detailing how the policy affected their careers and lives.

TIME spoke with Our Time’s editor, Josh Seefried, an active-duty Air Force officer and the co-founder and co-director of OutServe, an association of LGBT military personnel. Until now, Seefried had used the pseudonym “J.D. Smith,” but today, he can speak publicly using his real name.

Was your sexuality an issue when you entered the U.S. Air Force Academy?
When I entered the academy, I didn’t know I was gay at all. My sophomore year, one of my best friends at the academy came out to me, and I said that I wasn’t sure about myself either. We started to date for over a year, and I realized during that time I was gay. At the end of my sophomore year, he graduated and I was left alone there, and I was faced with the hard realization that I would serve under “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for a very long time.

What drove your decision to remain at the academy and incur a service obligation even though you would have to serve under this policy?
No words can really describe the desire to serve in uniform, the desire to serve your country and have that noble career, and I saw no other path for me. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” at first almost sounds reasonable — you just don’t talk about this one aspect of your life. But you don’t realize how hard that is until you actually start living the policy. There was not a day that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” didn’t consume you. It’s not only the fact that you think you might get fired in the future. The basic idea of the military is that everyone around you is family and you trust the person next to you. But you immediately lose something about that when you have to lie about yourself. The basic conversations you have are, Are you married? Are you in a relationship? And you have to always lie. When that foundation at the very start is a lie, you lose that family aspect about the military.

(READ: Writing the Obituary on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”)

What about when you graduated from the academy and entered the larger military? Were things easier or more difficult?
When I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I told myself it was going to get a lot better, that living this double life was a lot easier. I was absolutely wrong — it got harder. I complained about an instructor at the Tactical Training Course changing my scores because he found out I was gay, and he turned around and outed me. And I was saved by the new policy that protects against third-party malicious outings. But then I was removed from my job. So I wrote an e-mail to a bunch of friends and said, “This is what happens under this policy. This is what this policy makes people go through.” So we set up a website and started to post stories anonymously and created a database of gay active-duty troops that we knew of and started to connect people.

OutServe helped create a stable gay community in the military, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have more than 300 members over there. That’s a community that’s never existed before. Taking on the book project was important because it was a mainstream way to reach out to gay military members. People realize they’re not alone in the military and it’s not wrong to be gay. With the book, I wanted to speak to other gay military members and let them know there are other people out there. People may hate what we’ve done with OutServe and they may hate the fact that we have a book coming out, but dialogue starts and you can break down the walls of prejudice. That’s why it’s so important in the book that people use their real names. There are people in the book who haven’t even come out to their families. But the book starts the discussion, and that’s when you see respect in the military.

During the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” debate, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General James Amos, was adamantly against repeal, but the minute the President signed it, he was the first one out there saying, “We’re going to salute smartly and move out, and we’re not only going to execute the repeal order, but we’re going to do it well.” Was that encouraging?
Absolutely. That’s leadership at its finest, saying, We’re going to implement this change and we’re going to do it the best. I think General Amos has shown great leadership during this process; a lot of our military leaders have. President Obama, especially. When he signed the legislation, one of the things he did in his speech, he spoke to the gays and lesbians currently serving. That’s the Commander in Chief directly addressing gay troops. That’s what I remember most about the last year.

(READ: What Happens After September 20th)

Many issues are discussed in the book: the lack of joint assignments for gay couples, lack of dependent status, spousal rights. While there are things the military can do, the heart of the matter is that the federal government doesn’t recognize gay marriage. Are there plans to push for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act?
I think the strongest way we can help is to tell our story. The debate drastically changes when military members enter the scene. The very first person who dies in Iraq or Afghanistan who is gay and they show his partner getting the flag, that will drastically change the way American culture views gay marriage. Someone who is gay in the military should have the right to get married and have the same protections as other married couples. I’m in a military-to-military relationship. When I have to move in six months, does that relationship end because we can’t get a joint assignment? If we were married, we could get a joint assignment.

The most important thing that came out of the survey is that gay service members just want to feel equal. They don’t want special treatment. The No. 1 priority for gay service members after repeal is partner benefits. Under “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” discrimination was invisible. Now, for the first time since African Americans were integrated into the military, inequality will be blatant. You’ll have two classes of military: those who have marriage rights and those who don’t. Straight service members won’t be O.K. with the fact that their gay friends are not getting the same rights as them.