Repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" celebrated

Jeremy Johnson had served in the Navy for 10 years, all under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But in 2007, "needing to find some integrity," he decided to tell a superior he was gay, effectively ending his enlistment.

On Tuesday, DADT, as the policy has come to be known, was repealed. And if that wasn't enough good news for Johnson, 34, he said he learned in the afternoon that his application to return to service, as a Navy reservist, had been accepted.

"I'm back in," a grinning Johnson said, celebrating the DADT repeal at a party at Howard's of Mount Vernon bar and restaurant in Baltimore. It was one of a host of events scheduled across the country Tuesday night by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based group that worked for the repeal.

"We've been counting down the days," said Melissa Verduzco, 28, of Towson. She attended the Baltimore gathering with her partner, Danielle Feinstein, 33, whom she married in a religious service two years ago. "It's been awesome."

Verduzco and Feinstein are members of a National Guard unit, musicians in an Army band who have played at inaugurations, deployment ceremonies and other events. But they hid their relationship to well-meaning colleagues who, seeing their wedding rings, would ask about meeting their husbands.

"It's just nice I can now call her my wife," Feinstein said.

The parties culminated a day of celebration over the end of DADT, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. At 12:01 a.m., when the repeal became law, Gary Ross, a 2002 graduate of the Naval Academy and a lieutenant, married his partner, a civilian, in Vermont.

President Barack Obama had signed the bill repealing DADT in December of last year, but it did not go into effect until Tuesday.

"As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," Obama said in a prepared statement. "As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members. And today, as commander in chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service."

Johnson, who is a student at University of Maryland Baltimore County, is among the more than 14,000 service members whom activists say were discharged because of DADT.

He had worked as a military journalist, at one point teaching a broadcasting course at Fort Meade. He said he had occasionally confided in colleagues that he was gay, and sometimes word would get around. The first time that happened, a supervisor told him not to worry about it, but when it came up in 2007 while he was serving aboard a ship in Guam, he decided to officially come out.

Johnson said he wrote a letter confirming his homosexuality to a supervisor, but was urged to take it back and stick with the Navy because the policy was likely to be lifted. But Johnson, who had reached the rank of petty officer first class, said he didn't think he could continue living a double life that long.

"I had no idea what I would do. I had no idea where I would live," he said. "I just stepped off into the great beyond."

Ironically enough, one of the jobs he got after leaving was writing speeches for a company that had a contract with the Navy.

For those currently serving in the military, the DADT repeal offers the option of coming out without the threat of being discharged.

"We all woke up this morning breathing easier," said Jonathan Mills, a staff sergeant with the Air Force in Washington who is working on an MBA at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Mills, a radio technician who has served in Afghanistan, is the executive editor of OutServe, an online and print magazine for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered military personnel. He and others on the magazine previously used pseudonyms but now have attached their real names to their work.

Mills doesn't anticipate "a mass coming out" as a result of the repeal, but instead, a gradual transition. There are still those in the service branches who remain uncomfortable with the repeal, Mills said, but it's a sentiment that he sees changing, day by day, person by person.

"This is the first step," Mills said. "It gives [other service members] a window into what being gay is all about. This is how we eventually change their hearts and minds."

He predicted that the repeal will help rather than harm unit cohesion, as gay service members will no longer have to lie about their private lives or face discharge.

"When I enlisted, it seemed like [DADT] would be pretty unobtrusive," said Mills, who has been in the Air Force for seven years. "But it never works out like that. Co-workers are very involved in our lives, making sure we're OK: 'What did you do this weekend?'"

Some colleagues understood his need to be more circumspect, he said. "Anytime someone found out about me, it led to a deeper connection," Mills said.

But there were those who didn't know and sensed a divide, he said. "They didn't understand why we were more withholding. It created a climate of mistrust."

Activists also say the repeal is a first step. Same-sex spouses of service members, for example, still do not get the same benefits as heterosexual spouses because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

And for those like Johnson who are seeking to re-enlist, there may be some bumps in the road ahead. They may not automatically return to their former jobs, depending on whether those have been filled in the interim, and the draw-down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan means fewer personnel needs.

But Johnson said he has always taken "one enlistment at a time." He began working on his application to the Navy Reserve in October, getting a physical at Fort Meade and making sure everything was ready in advance of Tuesday's repeal.

Even before the repeal, he was making his way back to the Navy, or at least, to being a veteran. He started working with the 6th Branch, a community service organization in which veterans seek to use their experience in the military on local projects.

"I had sort of gotten away from the idea," Johnson said, "that I was even a veteran."

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