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In June 2011, Capt. Matthew Phelps had already served for nearly a decade in the Marine Corps, hiding the fact that he was gay because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that barred gays from serving openly.
He had just begun his new job as a company commander at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and, even though the 20-year-old law was just months away from ending, he still did not want to come out, for fear of being dismissed from the Corps.
What a difference a year and repeal made.
“A year later … a week ago last Friday, on June 15,” Phelps told a standing-room only crowd Tuesday at the Pentagon’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride event, “I, Capt. Matthew Phelps, was invited to attend [a] pride reception at the White House. And I thought, how amazing is it over the course of a year, I could go from being fired for being who I am, to having champagne with the commander-in-chief -- on cocktail napkins with the presidential seal on it.”
Phelps was one of three panelists who offered up a glimpse into their lives as current or former servicemembers who had to serve “in the closet.”
Also on the panel was Brenda Fulton, who graduated from West Point in 1980 with the academy’s first class to include women, and Gordon Tanner, an Air Force veteran and career civilian employee at the Pentagon.
Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, opened the event with a brief review of the process that culminated in the repeal of DADT. There were critics and opponents who claimed that gays serving openly would wreak havoc on the armed forces, he remembered.
“Repeatedly, we heard servicemembers express the view that open homosexuality would lead to widespread and overt displays of feminine behavior among men; homosexual promiscuity; harassment and unwelcome advancement within units; invasions of personal privacy; and an overall erosion of standard of conduct, unit cohesion and morality.”
While there have been a few incidents, Johnson said, repeal has actually played out better than Pentagon and administration officials anticipated, with no risk to mission readiness.
Panelists said their experience and observations bear that out.
Fulton said the generation that makes up most of the services today has grown up in a society where people may be open about their sexuality.
At West Point, she said, repeal of DADT was a non-event.
“One [NCO] actually said to me, you know, we braced for impact and it wasn’t even a speed-bump,” she said.
Where there are still some problems among older servicemembers, Fulton said, even that group includes “straight allies.” Fulton told a story of a female Air Force chaplain who conducted a wedding ceremony for two women, one of them an airman. At the back of the church, she said, was a senior Air Force chaplain -- a Southern Baptist, she said -- who had came out to the ceremony “to make sure everything goes smoothly for my airman.”
Phelps said that when he reported for work on Sept. 20, 2011, the day DADT expired, he fully expected a different world at work.
“I went in sat down at my desk, and I kind of braced myself on the desk, waiting for everyone to come in and ask me if I was gay,” he said, causing the attendees to laugh. “Believe it or not -- nobody did -- I didn’t get any emails, I didn’t get any phone calls, in fact the phone didn’t even ring. I was waiting like -- ‘somebody at least talk to me!' "
In some ways, he said, it was like going to work for the first time, because he was finally going as the person he really was.
“Since then, I’ve found myself sort of cast into a liberal spotlight, because all I’ve done is acknowledge the fact that I’m gay, the fact that I love serving my country, the fact that I love being a Marine. That’s it. That’s all I’ve done. And somehow that’s news.
“I can’t imagine having a panel where we would say, “Congratulations. These are all male Marines. Let’s give them a round of applause.”