Gay military members reflect on service before, after DADT, marriage ruling
HAMPTON (Tribune News Service) — Staff Sgts. Blake Briggs and Duane Schroeder could have been fired or denied entry when they first joined the Air Force if they were open about their sexual orientation.
Briggs joined in 2009 and Schroeder enlisted a few years earlier in 2007 during the policy of "don't ask, don't tell," which barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexuals from military service. Now, four years after its official repeal on Sept. 20, 2011, and subsequent rulings in Virginia federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, the couple says they've seen positive changes in the military's acceptance of gay service members.
"I have absolutely seen a change," Schroeder, a water and fuel maintenance specialist, said. "When I came in, same with him (Briggs), we could have been fired and all kinds of punishment. But it was just the law of the time. There was a lot of concern about how people would react if it was legal. But it hasn't been an issue, like, at all."
Their paths crossed while on deployment in 2012, though they were stationed in separate countries in the Middle East. They kept in touch through Facebook, and when they returned to the states — Briggs, a fitness specialist at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton and Schroeder at a base in Florida — they tried long-distance dating for a while.
The couple married May 1, 2014, in Washington, D.C. — same-sex marriage wasn't legal yet in Virginia or Florida. Waiting wasn't an option, Briggs said.
In February 2014, a U.S. District Judge in Norfolk ruled that Virginia's prohibition on same-sex marriage violated federal constitutional provisions on equal protection and due process of law. But the ruling didn't go into effect until Oct. 6, 2014, when the nation's highest court surprised many by passing up the case making same-sex marriage immediately legal in Virginia.
"For me, when Virginia passed it, it was knowing that if we both decided to get out or something happened we would still be recognized here. We wouldn't have to move somewhere to be recognized, if that was something we wanted to do," said Schroeder, who was reassigned to Langley after their nuptials. "But when we got married, there was no telling when, if ever, what states were going to approve and which states weren't."
Then this June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. Briggs said this change opened their options for life post-military, though neither is interested in leaving the service any time soon.
'This is me'
Staff Sgt. Crystal Lee, a watercraft diesel engine mechanic, joined the Army in 2001.
"When I first came in, it was all hush," Lee said of being gay. "You couldn't say anything, you couldn't 'get caught' so to speak, that could even remotely cause somebody to believe that you were homosexual. Because when I first came in it was all about perception. I've had some really good friends put out of the military for being homosexual and being caught."
Lee said she never denied her sexual orientation, but she was careful who she told using gender neutral ways to describe the woman she was dating at the time.
With the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" on Sept. 20, 2011, the attitude toward homosexuals hadn't changed much, she said. The stigma was still there, and gay service members still felt they had to hide.
"It's something you had to come to terms with. This is me. I'm proud of me. But this is who I have to be right now," Lee said. "I don't know what's more courageous: to pretend and stay in so that I can serve my country and make that sacrifice of who I am to serve my country, or to stand up for who I am and what I believe and say, 'you know what, you're system doesn't work for me, because I'm not going to denounce myself and pretend I'm not proud.' "
Lee chose to serve.
"The big joke through the military became: 'It's OK to be gay,'" Lee said. "That was the slogan, but not much had changed."
That is until recently, Lee said, "with the complete eradication of the segregation of homosexuals and heterosexuals in the military, and being able to marry and have your spouse get benefits."
In 2013, the Defense Department extended active-duty same-sex couples access to the same benefits heterosexual couples had, but the Department of Veterans Affairs resisted until earlier this year following the lead of the Supreme Court.
"I find that most people don't care, especially if you don't bring it into the work place," Lee said. "I don't expect someone to bring their heterosexuality into the workplace, so I'm not going to bring my homosexuality into the workplace. There is no place for it at work."
Lee married her partner, a civilian contractor, on Dec. 1, 2014, here in Virginia. More than being able to get married, Lee said the most important change for same-sex couples was the extension of benefits.
Lee has a 12-year-old daughter, who she wants her wife to raise should anything happen.
"When they finally gave those benefits, that was probably the best day I've had in I can't tell you how long," she said. "That was a day of celebration right there. I didn't care about money. I didn't care about them still trying to figure out the (Basic Housing Allowance) and the special pay and separation pay and all that other stuff. I didn't care. She can be my full beneficiary. She can control my will. And I don't have to jump through hoop and get all this special paperwork for her to do so. As my spouse, she has those rights. That to me is the best part of this whole process. That right there is what we were fighting for."
Airman 1st Class Holly Harnage enlisted in the Air Force within the last two years. She said her being gay has never been an issue.
"It's almost normal," Harnage said. "When I say it or someone asks, there's no flinching, there's no reaction. It's just routine conversation."
Harnage and her partner were married in January after they were separated for a year. Harnage was assigned at Langley, while her wife was still in their home state of California.
"The biggest hardship that we've had, and I believe every military family has had, is distance," she said.
Harnage said she can't argue with those who oppose same-sex marriage.
"Being in the military, we fight for those people's rights to have those opinions," she said. "It's nice to know that we aren't separated from everyone else. That we're able to live like everyone else does."
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