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A Veteran Opens Up About Serving Under “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”

U.S. Army Veteran James Fitzgerald describes his experience being a gay man serving under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Preeti Parikh, MD
Written by Venus Sánchez | Reviewed by Preeti Parikh, MD
Published on February 18, 2021

James Fitzgerald, a U.S. Army veteran, served his country for 10 years. The majority of it was spent under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Coming from a Southern, religious, conservative family, and being a 19-year-old closeted gay man, acted as an additional strain. It impacted his emotional growth because he was still figuring out who he was as a person.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the U.S. policy for gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of service. Instead of banning LGBTQ members from the military entirely, the policy stated that the military simply would not ask applicants about their sexual orientation. While it allowed LGBTQ members to serve, they had to do so while hiding their true selves or risk losing their jobs.

How “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Affected Fitzgerald

This restriction acted as a handicap for Fitzgerald, and he couldn’t fully embrace the mission he had been assigned. Although his primary goal was to serve the country, Fitzgerald’s performance suffered. He notes he would have achieved the goal he had set for himself, if he had his full faculties.

He had constant worries that gradually chipped away at him. For example, he stressed about whether or not he was using the correct pronouns when referring to a romantic partner in front of his superiors, or displaying the right amount of masculinity.

“Part of my mental capacities are always focused on continuing the facade; the presentation of the individual I wanted my colleagues to see,” he adds.

When recognizing possible allies, Fitzgerald had an internalized grief. He was already letting them down by not voicing who he was and becoming a resource and ally in their time of need. “I can’t connect with them in the way I know that I can, and maybe the way that I should,” he says.

Additionally, the reaction he did portray was the exact opposite. “[I had to] stand my ground and reinforce the masculinity that so many have said I have to embody,” says James.

A New Beginning

On December 22nd, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy issued by the Department of Defense. In other words, service members who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual could serve openly without hiding who they were.

“We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. Those are the ideals that generations have fought for and uphold today,” says Obama.

The repeal has paved the way for new regulations, benefits, and protections for the LGBTQ community. New policies ensure that they won’t have to worry about anyone’s prejudice towards their sexual orientation.

“This has definitely opened the door for LGBTQ members who are currently serving, to serve openly and to be proud of their service,” says Fitzgerald.

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