Lindsay Church comes from a military family, and as a teenager, she planned to join the Navy right after high school. Her plans changed, however, in the face of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — the Department of Defense policy born on Feb. 28, 1994, that barred gay, lesbian or bisexual servicemembers from serving openly the military.
It was 2003, and Church, who identifies as lesbian and gender-nonconforming, was just then coming out of the closet.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to come out of the closet and at the same time get back in it,” she said. So she tabled her plans. Five years later, she said, she still felt the need to serve: “There was part of me that felt unfulfilled.”
Enlisting meant keeping quiet about her sexual orientation, something Church didn’t take lightly. “I was doing drag,” she said. “That’s how much I was involved in the LGBT community. I loved that part of my identity.”
A few weeks into basic training at the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois, Church fell ill and had to miss a few classes. A fellow recruit helped her go over some coursework one evening in the bay. She sat on Church’s bed while they went through her notes.
The next day, Church and two others (“the only three queer women in our division”) were called into the office for discipline. “This fleet master chief tells me, if I came to boot camp to find someone to get in the racks with, I came to the wrong place,” she told Task & Purpose. “I almost got an Article 15 for that.”
“I realized how quickly I was going to be discriminated against,” she said. Over the course of four years in the Navy as a linguist, Church said she’d encountered both harassment and support. But even that support was dampened by the military’s official policy.
When she was an E3, Church said, an E6 mentor pulled her aside with some advice to make her time in the Navy easier. “His two pieces of advice were, one, you need to grow your hair out, and… to find a gay man to be my boyfriend, so in case I got in trouble I could say I had a boyfriend and that person could say he had a girlfriend.”
Church said she went out to party on the night Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011. But when she left the Navy the following year, she didn’t return to the LGBT community. “I didn’t reintegrate,” she said. “I didn’t know how to.”
It’s been just over six years since the military ended its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual service members to serve without needing to hide their sexual orientation for the first time. For some new recruits, the policy is already a relic, but for veterans who served before it ended, the discrimination they endured still feels fresh. Some of them were discharged because of the policy, while others merely suffered in silence until it ended. Many have shunned the label “veteran” altogether.
“They’re self-identifying as veterans at a lower rate, they’re accessing services at a lower rate.”
“Most LGBTQ vets that I’ve worked with identify much more closely with the LGBTQ community than with the veteran community,” said Nathaniel Boehme, the LGBTQ veterans coordinator at the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs. “I run into vets who tell me, ‘That’s a part of my life I never want to talk about again.’” Mandated by a bill that passed the Oregon Senate in 2015, Boehme’s position as a full-time LGBTQ veteran’s coordinator is the only one of its kind in the United States.
A big part of Boehme’s job is conducting community outreach, bridging divides between LGBTQ-serving organizations and veterans organizations. “When you’re talking to people who fit what the archetype of a veteran is — white, cisgender, male, straight — they don’t see how the spaces they create tend to exclude and ostracize others,” he said. In order to include those individuals who have distanced themselves from the military, Boehme said he prefers to ask “Have you served in the military?” instead of “Are you a veteran?”
“When I identify as a veteran in a queer space, I’m very acutely aware that I might be reminding people of something that was really crappy for them or of something they were denied,” said Christine Black, a former Army mechanic who served from 2005 to 2013. When she graduated from law school in 2015, Black was honored as an outstanding veteran and an outstanding LGBTQ graduate. But she didn’t want both to be announced at the same time, she said.
“I had friends in both the veterans center and the queer identity center, and they were maybe 40 feet apart, but you would never see me walk from one to the other. If I had business in both of them, I went at separate times or I came back another day,” she said.
Timothy Jones is one of those veterans who avoided identifying as a veteran after leaving the service. He served in the Navy from 1998 until he was discharged in 2000 under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He said his final year was marked by isolation and harassment, after he was raped by a fellow servicemember. “I went from being a hard-charging sailor to one that was drinking every weekend to forget what happened,” Jones said. “The hazing rose to a level where I had to be removed from my room to another barracks.”
For 10 years after leaving the Navy, Jones struggled with addiction and homelessness. It wasn’t until speaking with a VA counselor after landing in jail that “slowly but surely, the light kind of returned.”
Jones said the repeal of DADT in 2011 was bittersweet. He felt proud of the servicemembers who no longer had to hide their sexual orientation, but also felt the loss of his own opportunity. “Everyone gets supported and decorated when they’ve done their full service or gone to war, and that wasn’t me,” he said. “I didn’t feel I had earned the right to be a veteran.”
It wasn’t until years later, after he organized a 200-mile walk to raise awareness for homeless veterans, that he began to reclaim the word. “I encountered homeless veterans, and I realized I am a veteran, and these are my brothers.”
The Williams Institutes, a UCLA law school think tank focused on gender identity, estimates that more than 14,000 military service members were discharged because of their sexual orientation under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Changes in military policy have since allowed those servicemembers to retroactively upgrade their separation paperwork, known as a DD214, but that still requires gay, lesbian, or bisexual veterans to come forward for a fix.
“They’re self-identifying as veterans at a lower rate, they’re accessing services at a lower rate,” said Ely Ross, director of the Washington Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs. Last year, Ross began conducting targeted outreach to LGBTQ veterans in the District of Columbia after he noticed this gap.
As part of its effort to build ties with the local LGBTQ community, the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs has partnered with OutServe-SDLN, an association for actively serving LGBTQ military personnel and veterans. President and CEO Matt Thorn estimates OutServe-SLDN provided $700,000 worth of legal services in 2017 and helps an average of 300 veterans a year with their paperwork changes. (You don’t need a lawyer for a DD214 upgrade, but having one makes it easier.)
Thorn said one of his priorities is to educate others about homelessness and mental health issues, which disproportionately affect LGBT individuals: “It’s important to us that everyone addressing those concerns in the whole veteran population are also understanding the unique aspects of the LGBT community in doing so.”
Among other things, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell bred distrust of military health providers by gay and lesbian servicemembers, who risked getting discharged for disclosing their sexual orientation even in a healthcare setting. That lack of trust continued after the policy ended. In a 2013 survey, only 70% of gay service members said they felt comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation to military health providers, even though they knew the information could no longer be used to discharge them. The VA created an LGBT health program in 2012, but some advocates believe LGBT veterans still have particular needs that aren’t being met.
“We don’t know who each other are because we all got out of the military and said, ‘Fuck this noise,’” she said, “so we walked away.”
Ross said one of his biggest challenges is rebuilding trust between the military community and LGBTQ veterans. “The direct feedback from veterans we’ve engaged with has been, ‘I didn’t come to this office until somebody else vouched for you,’” said Ross.
“Part of the problem is that this isn’t a constituency group or group of veterans that is officially tracked by the office of veterans affairs,” said Ross. Representatives of the DOD and VA confirmed that data about sexual orientation and gender identity is not collected on federal surveys. The most recent estimates — that 1 to 4% of military service members identify as gay or lesbian — were made in 2000.
There are an estimated 15,500 transgender service members, who continued to be discriminated against by the military after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended. They have only been able to serve openly since 2016, and their ability to do so has been threatened since President Trump attempted to reverse that policy last summer. (Several suits against the administration’s proposed transgender ban, including one brought by OutServe, are currently being litigated. “We as a movement are dealing with a hostile administration, and so many aspects of our work are entangled with the work they’re doing against our community,” said Thorn.)
“We’ve had the doom of Damocles hanging over us,” said Alice Ashton, a Navy linguist who came out as transgender as soon as the ban was lifted. “Anytime, you could be fired, you could lose your pension. Financially, I talked to my landlord: ‘Worst case scenario, if I lose my job, how much notice do I have to give?’”
Ashton said she wasn’t directly impacted by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but she saw several friends and coworkers discharged under the policy, and it might have delayed her coming out. “It had effects on me feeling safe exploring that side of myself,” she said.
After the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, transgender servicemembers continued to face some of the same barriers that gay, lesbian and bisexual troops did before. “Like, my wife trying to access mental health care, if she wanted to talk about me being trans, she’d get the response of, ‘If you say that, I’m going to have to tell Bryan’s commander,’ because she was accessing military health care,” said Bryan “Bree” Fram, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who is currently stationed at the Pentagon.
“You have to hide who you are, you have to put a filter in your brain that goes through your thoughts and actions and words,” said Fram, who came out to colleagues the day the ban on transgender servicemembers was lifted.
Over the past several years, Lindsay Church has wholly claimed her identity as an LGBTQ veteran. In 2017, she resigned as commander of her local American Legion post because she didn’t feel the group welcomed her and others like her. “There have been many days where I have felt demoralized and dejected by my fellow Legionnaires, with varying colors of hats, based on comments and treatment that were aimed at the identities that I hold that make me different: young, female, lesbian, gender non-conforming,” she wrote in her letter of resignation. “These identities in the Legion represent something that is foreign, something that is other, and something that is lesser.”
“When I walked away I was met with a lot of folks who said, ‘I felt the same exact way. I don’t feel like I have a place,’” said Church, who now works as the assistant director of student veteran life at the University of Washington.
So she and another veteran founded Minority Veterans of America, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting veterans with underepresented identities: “LGBTQ, womxn, people of color, and religious minorities.”
Finding new members has been somewhat difficult, because the people Church is looking for aren’t already in veteran spaces. “We don’t know who each other are because we all got out of the military and said, ‘Fuck this noise,’” she said, “so we walked away.”
But slowly, “people started coming out of the woodwork,” she said. As of its most recent count, the group has about 166 members, about 40% of whom identify as LGBTQ. Church said many of them, like her, are relieved to find fellow veterans who can relate to the pain they experienced while serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“These folks are ready to talk about it and ready to feel included, but they don’t feel like they have a place where they can be included,” said Church. “What I hear so much is, ‘I just want to feel like I belong.’”