In Kathy Stickel's experience, the problem with the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy isn't the sex. It's the paperwork.
Stickel, who is in her second year at Vermont Law School, served eight months in Kuwait with the Army Reserves. Her unit was in the "ammunition business," moving ordnance to the front lines during the early part of the Iraq war. Some of Stickel's duties involved the reams of paperwork that document everything from next of kin to who has power of attorney over a soldier's affairs. The experience gave her a unique perspective on the military's treatment of its gay and lesbian members.
"A lot of people think the statute is about two boys caught in a closet," Stickel said. "But it doesn't really play out that way."
Stickel said civilians can't even conceive of the number of forms that are filled out before a soldier can go to war. That paper trail can, and sometimes does, land gay and lesbian service members in trouble.
"One soldier's girlfriend back home was spending all his money," Stickel recalled. "Well, we fixed that in 20 minutes. The sergeant called and said, 'Stop this, you're a bad American,' and then threatened her with legal action."
But, when the same thing happened to Connie, an 18-year veteran who happened to be a lesbian, the aggrieved soldier was powerless to stop it. The explanation would have required details about the person back home that Connie didn't care to share with the Judge Advocate General's Corps.
"She couldn't complain because the statute says if you admit to the relationship you must be separated," Stickel said. "It came down to, 'Do I protect my bank account or lose my career?'"
Those kinds of intractable choices have been forced upon gay men and lesbians in the military since 1993, when 10 U.S.C. Section 654 conceded their right to serve but prohibited them from expressing their sexual orientation. And that's why Kathy Stickel will be among 40 Vermont Law students in Washington, D.C., on Friday to lobby Congress for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"Lobby Day" is organized by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Last year, the event drew more than 600 people to the nation's capital. Participants, many of them former military, visit every Congressional office, dropping off material and information about the policy, then gather for a rally on Capitol Hill.
This year, the campaign will focus on lining up support for the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a bill currently in the U.S. House that would repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Members of Congress will no doubt also get an update on Cook v. Gates, a civil action filed in federal court by 13 former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guard cadets discharged, against their will, for being gay. The plaintiffs aren't looking to be financially compensated for their treatment by the military, but are requesting the right to continue serving in the armed forces.
According to the Service-members Legal Defense Network, more than 11,000 gay men and lesbians were forcibly discharged from the armed forces between 1994 and 2005. The number represents fewer than a third of the estimated 36,000 active-duty gays and lesbians, according to research by the Urban Institute based on the 2000 Census.
Moreover, at a time of war and declining recruitment, an estimated 45,000 men and women have chosen not to serve their country because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," according to UCLA's Williams Institute, which studies issues related to race, sexuality and the law.
"It's not just the number discharged," said Jackie Gardina, a Vermont Law professor. "What's missing are the people who simply choose not to re-up because they want to serve openly. They don't want to lie anymore. And there are those who never apply to join because they know about the statute."
The military claims that the presence of gay men and lesbians in the ranks "would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." But Kathy Stickel said the opposite may be true - that forcing men and women who are living side-by-side in a tent to conceal an essential element of their humanity breeds demoralizing paranoia and distrust among unit members.
"It's the secret that bothers people," Stickel said, "not the substance of the secret."
Richard Eckley, a Vermont Law student who attended "Lobby Day" in 2007, says his four years as an Army infantryman convinced him that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" reflects a generational gap in the armed forces - between those who are making policy and those who must live by it.
Eckley grew up on a farm in Iowa. After high school, with most of his family's land sold and no clear options, the military offered him a great opportunity. Today, six years after discharge, he considers 10 U.S.C. Section 654 an affront to his basic principles. "I did three overseas deployments and represented the United States to the world," Eckley said. "It upsets me that this policy is in place. It upsets me because we're supposed to be the best country in the world."
Eckley can't attend "Lobby Day" this year because of a scheduling conflict. But, like Stickel, he is convinced that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be repealed, perhaps soon.
"There is always going to be a small group of people who'll say, 'I don't want to serve with no queers,' just like there were people 50 years ago who said they wouldn't serve with African-Americans," Eckley said. "You'll still have to be careful who you tell things to. But I absolutely think it's going to be repealed."