By: Joseph Christopher Rocha
Those, like me, who are following the Pentagon's plans to end the ban on gays in the military, expect big changes soon. Based on a just-completed 45-day review of "don't ask, don't tell," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has received recommendations to apply the policy in "a manner that is more appropriate and fair." And while a full repeal of the policy likely remains months away, even the simplest change - raising the bar for the kind of evidence required to launch an investigation - could have a profound impact on the lives of gays and lesbians serving in the military. I know, because if that change had been made three years ago when I was enlisted, I would be a sophomore at the United States Naval Academy today.
After a childhood of abuse at the hands of a meth-addicted mother, I had only one dream, and only one ambition: to graduate from the Naval Academy and to dedicate my entire life to serving my country. I enlisted on my 18th birthday and, after serving for nearly four years and receiving three congressional nominations for the Naval Academy, I was accepted to the academy's preparatory school.
But to get to that moment, I had followed the rules of "don't ask, don't tell" to the point of endangering my own life. While I kept my sexuality to myself during my tour in the Persian Gulf as an explosive detection handler, my unit chief targeted me for unusually cruel and extensively documented hazing, in part because of rumors that I might be gay. I never reported the abuse to my commanding officers, since I feared that my chief or his buddies could retaliate by outing me. After all, launching a "don't ask, don't tell" investigation requires merely "credible information" from "reliable sources" - opening is known as a third-party outing.
So there I was at the doorsteps of this prestigious academy, evaluating what an officer career under DADT had to offer me and all I had already lost. I knew I deserved better. From a moral standpoint, I knew "don't ask, don't tell" violated every aspect of the Navy's core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment. And from the standpoint of self-preservation, I knew any snitch with a grudge could end my career.
I decided I'd rather be discharged as a veteran who served honorably in the Middle East, rather than risk a future discharge as an officer embroiled in an outing scandal or shamed by malice. So I made a statement to my commanding officer, telling him I was gay, and I was discharged.
The policy of third-party outings has effectively made thousands of the military's gay personnel into fugitives. While serving, no matter how closely we've follow DADT, we have lived every second with the fear that anyone, for any reason, and with little proof, has the ability to ruin our careers.
It is time now that our country values the sweat and blood of all troops and that we reward each of them with equal job security and human dignity.
Admiral Mike Mullen has the opportunity to reduce what can be considered "credible evidence" and effectively raise the standard of who qualifies as a "reliable source". And while far short of the necessary full repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," this stop-gap rule change will significantly lower the threat the policy poses to National Security by limiting the discharges of otherwise excellent personnel. I know from experience that it will ease the burden on the everyday lives of those serving under it, while the Department of Defense prepares for a full repeal of the military's ban against gays.
Frustrated and understandably angry by the prospect of the repeal taking another year, there are still those who demand an Executive Order, a temporary solution at the mercy of any Presidential Administration. However, we are not likely to see again the political capital invested today in the repeal effort by the White House, Department of Defense and Congress. We must support the only permanent solution: repeal by way of congressional law.
As for me, only in the case of such a repeal will I be allowed to serve once again and earn the commission I still dream of. And yet, knowing what Admiral Mullen's anticipated policy change will mean for the men and women serving today, I will celebrate them as the beginning of the end of institutionalized discrimination in our military.
Joseph Christopher Rocha, 23, is a junior in Political Science at the University of San Diego and was recently awarded the 2010 Harvey Milk Civil Rights Award for his extensive work in contributing to the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."