Repeal Day Marks The End Of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Sep 21, 2011
Originally published on September 21, 2011 8:38 am

"Don't ask, don't tell" is no more. The policy barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving in the military.

Gay rights groups held Repeal Day celebrations across the country. One celebration took place in Greenwich Village at the historic Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the gay rights movement.

During the Clinton administration, don't ask, don't tell was a compromise. It seemed at first a more progressive policy than bringing gays up on charges of sodomy, or giving them dishonorable discharges or putting them in military mental hospitals.

Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate and a captain in the Army, is now the executive director of Knights Out, an organization of gay West Point graduates. Standing outside the Stonewall Inn, she remembered that in the beginning people thought the policy might work.

"If you think about don't ask, don't tell, it seems even-handed," Fulton said.

But in execution, she said, no one was ever punished for asking, only for telling. Fulton was not discharged because of the policy. She left on her own.

"I couldn't stand lying about my life, hiding my partner and my family," Fulton said. "I know so many people who that's their situation. The 14,000 who have been kicked out are just a small fraction of those who have been affected negatively by this policy."

Filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey produced and directed The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which is being shown on HBO. They were at the Stonewall on Tuesday night.

"I remember thinking, well it's not great, but it is a compromise," Bailey said. "I don't think Randy or I had any idea how iniquitous it was. There was a ban before but there wasn't a law. So really it wasn't a compromise, it was an enormous step backward."

Anthony Grecco was discharged from the military under don't ask, don't tell. He said he was outed by a buddy who read his journal, before he even finished his training. He said ending the policy changes everything for him.

"I've never been so happy in my life," Grecco said. "It means the world to me. It means my future to me."

He's enlisting this week and has already finished the paperwork.

"I am re-enlisting as a human intelligence collector; I plan on doing psy-ops and making a career of it. Once I finish my bachelors' degree, I fully intend on going to Officer Candidate School and just excel from there," Grecco added.

About 150 people crowded into the Stonewall Inn bar, and there were cheers when someone stepped up to the microphone to lead a farewell to don't ask, don't tell.

As to what really propelled the change, people at the Stonewall gave many reasons: changes in attitudes in the country as a whole, shifting attitudes among top military brass, gay activism, legal action and the increasing needs of a military waging several wars.

"When we're at war what matters is: Do you have my back? Are you supporting me down range?" said Sue Fulton of Knights Out. "All of this other nonsense about who is waiting for you back home, or what the color of your skin is, or who you worship, those things don't matter when you're down range, when you are under fire. It comes down to do you have the character and the ability to have my back. Gays and lesbians have proven throughout this conflict that they do."

A time of war, she added, is often when the military can make cultural changes more easily.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Margot Adler went to a celebration at the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City, right here, a birthplace of the gay rights movement.

MARGOT ADLER: It's hard to remember, but way back in the Clinton administration "don't ask don't tell" was a compromise. It seemed at first a more progressive policy than bringing gays up on charges of sodomy, or giving them dishonorable discharges, or putting them in military mental hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT STREET SOUNDS)

ADLER: Standing outside the Stonewall Inn is Sue Fulton. She graduated from West Point in 1980 and was a captain in the Army. She is now the executive director of Knights Out, an organization of gay West Point graduates. She remembers that in the beginning people thought "don't ask don't tell" might work.

SUE FULTON: If you think about "don't ask don't tell," it seems even handed.

ADLER: But in execution, she says, no one was ever punished for asking, only for telling. Fulton was not discharged because of the policy. She left on her own.

FULTON: I couldn't stand lying about my life, hiding my partner and my family. And I know so many people that is their situation. I think it's just that the 14,000 who have been kicked out are just a small fraction of those who have been affected, but negatively by this policy.

ADLER: Two filmmakers came to the Stonewall last night. They produced and directed "The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which is being shown on HBO. One of the directors, Fenton Bailey, also remembers how different it seemed at the beginning.

FENTON BAILEY: I remember thinking, well it's not great, but it is a compromise. And I don't think Randy or I had any idea how iniquitous it was. There was a ban before but there wasn't a law. And so, really it wasn't a compromise at all, it was an enormous step backward.

ADLER: Anthony Grecco was discharged under "don't ask don't tell," He says he was outed by a buddy who read his journal, before he even finished his training. He says ending the policy changes everything for him.

ANTHONY GRECCO: I have never have been so happy in my life. So it means the world to me. It means my future to me.

ADLER: He's enlisting this week. He's already finished the paperwork.

GRECCO: I am re-enlisting as a human intelligence collector. I plan on doing psy-ops and making a career of it. Once I finish my Bachelors degree, I fully intend on going to office candidate school and to just excel from there.

ADLER: About 150 people crowded into the Stonewall Inn Bar, there were cheers when someone stepped up to the microphone to lead a farewell to "don't ask don't tell."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I just want to get a goodbye DADT to pick us up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MAN: Goodbye DADT.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ADLER: Sue Fulton:

FULTON: When we're at war, what matters is do you have my back? Are you supporting me downrange? And all of this other nonsense about, you know, who's waiting for you back home, or what the color of your skin is, or who you worship, those things don't matter. When you're downrange, when you're under fire, it comes down to do you have the character and the ability to have my back? And gays and lesbians have proven throughout this conflict that they do.

ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.