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Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the ROTC

Dbking, FlickerCommons

By David Schmoll

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkms/local-wkms-924382.mp3

Murray, KY – Senior Chris Morehead filters into an on campus panel discussion on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) late, he slips into the back and stands against the wall. His ears are pierced, hair gelled in the front and doesn't have the stereotypical look of someone interested in the ROTC program apart from his physique. But when he speaks, he speaks with the authority and confidence commonly found in people with a military background.

In fact, Chris is not a member of the ROTC. He's only taking the physical training. He's gotten himself in shape and he's learned about the military, preparing to join the Air Force when he graduates. But he can't join the program. Well, it's more like he won't join.

"The Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy has affected my goals, where I want to go because I want to be able to serve openly as a member of the LGBT community. And I don't want to jeopardize that part of my life to go back into the closet for the military because the military policy doesn't let me serve openly."

The issue of gay and lesbian people in ROTC programs recently gained national attention earlier this year when Sara Isaacson, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, came out to her commanding officer. The organization not only removed Isaacson from the program, but also requested she pay back her near $80,000 in ROTC scholarships. Chris may not have to worry about losing scholarships, but he does have other issues to deal with.

"Nobody obviously walks up to me and says anything to me. I've had looks before, I've had snickering comments behind my back, and it demoralizes me just a little bit to know that I'm trying just as hard and I'm working and doing exactly what some of these other guys are doing working out in the mornings and such and that I hear them say these things and they don't realize that they're hurtful to me."

The DADT panel offered their own reasoning for why members of the military react to gays the way they do. They believe societal pressures push for masculinity and anything seen as feminine as negative. This push for the macho man leaves guys like Chris feeling out of place among the ROTC members.

"I hardly speak up in class even. My voice is generally a little higher pitched tone and I don't hide the fact that I'm gay, but I don't promote it there because if I promote it there I feel like I'll be discriminated against more. So just by doing the class itself it makes me not want to be open."

Staff member and Co-Chair of the MSU President's Commission on Diversity and Inclusion Jody Cofer has had discussions with potential ROTC enlistees who are gay or lesbian. He doesn't discourage them from joining the program, rather gives them an explanation of the realities of joining the organization.

"I have at various times spoken with different students here on the campus that were interested and I have, in good conscience, talked to them about that they should be aware that the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' legislation does apply to ROTC programs. It is the law of the land."

But universities may not always agree with some sentiments from our federal government. Cofer acknowledges, the "law of the land" may come into conflict with the views of many universities' message.

"As we see across the country there is a history of tension on college campuses where ROTC programs exist and they have policies that name gay and lesbian members as protected individuals."

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Marshall, Professor of Military Science at the University of Tennessee at Martin, says the policy does not keep members of the ROTC from leading normal college student lives outside of the organization. He says that if a member were to be seen at a Gay Pride Parade, for example, he would have no issue with the cadet.

"It's a DoD (Department of Defense) policy, not an Army policy, specifically. It's all of DoD, we don't go out seeking information about sexual orientation."

Despite that case, Chris says he does have friends in the ROTC program who have come out to him. He says they do not show up to the LGBT meetings because of fear of outing themselves from the ROTC program. He admits some of his ROTC friends act differently when they are around him.

"Some of them are even afraid to be seen around me. They're afraid that my image that I have here on campus is going to somehow brush off on them."

Although the policy seems to be close to repeal, Cofer urges potential gay and lesbian ROTC members to show restraint and wait for the government to act.

"I would not encourage a student to proceed in joining especially given this issue is in play, the US Senate's taking it up next week, the House already has, the military's doing the study on implementation. I would say ride it out for the time being and let's see where the chips fall."

Chris is prepared to wait. But how long does he have to wait? With the impending Senate vote looming in the near future, what does the military future hold for Chris Morehead?

"I can't really say what I would do if it didn't pass. I am very openly gay. I hope it passes. I hope that by the time I graduate that I can be a part of the military like my family has in the past."

"Do you enlist?"

"Yes I do."

"You would?"

"I would, I would do it. I would go back in the closet just because I want to do it. I really just want to be a part of it. I am a patriot and I love my country."

The LGBT community has Wednesday, September 22 circled on their calendars. That's the date the Senate plans to vote on whether or not to repeal the legislation. Many members, like Chris, are ready for their chance to enlist openly.