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Sun., June 6, 2010

Jamie Tobias Neely: Let ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ pass

Michael Hargett grew up with parents who seemed to know he was gay long before he did. When he was 16, he blithely came out and invited his boyfriend to the high school prom.

A proud member of the millennial generation, he’d never felt the need to hide his sexuality. That’s why, when he looks back at the 25-year-old he was when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, he recognizes his naïveté.

Hargett did not realize when he began serving at Fairchild Air Force Base just what the ramifications of his seemingly innocuous actions might be. At 28, he’s wiser now, and he favors repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that derailed him.

This policy began in 1993, during the “have it both ways” ethic of the Clinton years. Now, finally, the ban against openly gay service appears to be nearing an end. On May 28 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal the policy, and the Senate is expected to consider the issue later this month.

It is a change that will reflect the majority opinion of the American people, the perspective of today’s generation of soldiers and the largely unspoken history of gay military service. It will ban the military from firing people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Hargett grew up in Charlotte, N.C., in a military family. After high school, he worked in retail and food service, but felt like he lived on “a little hamster wheel.”

In the Air Force, he discovered a compelling sense of common purpose. “We were all connected,” he said. “Everything you did affected everyone else.”

When Fairchild became his home base, he went to work in the logistics readiness squadron. He helped order and inventory aircraft parts, which were sent to air bases around the globe. “We called ourselves the Walmart of the Air Force,” he said.

One day a female co-worker asked him what kind of girl he liked. He didn’t think very long about the answer he tossed back: “The same kind of girl you like. Because I don’t date ’em, either.”

In 2008, Hargett volunteered in a Servicemembers Legal Defense Network booth at a Spokane Pride event. The organization works to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” As he listened to older gay military members speak that day, he found their stories heartbreaking.

He now thinks his supervisor saw an e-mail exchange about his volunteering at the Pride event. She talked to him in tears. She felt she was betraying him, he recalls, but she also felt she was required to pass the information along to his commander.

The commander met with Hargett. His words felt not so much a punishment as an apology. The Air Force could not allow him to serve while openly gay.

In July 2008 Hargett received an honorable discharge. The Air Force paid for him to drive home to North Carolina.

He found a job similar to the one he left at Fairchild, dealing with inventory at the corporate headquarters for a chain of small department stores. Yet he misses the Air Force. If “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed, he’ll consider joining the Air National Guard.

“I can’t explain why,” he says. “I just feel like there was something there for me and I didn’t get to complete it. I feel like I started a movie or a novel, and I didn’t finish.”

Opponents of repeal worry about military cohesion. Hargett says that until the armed forces develop “an idiot filter,” there will always be service members who treat women or gays with disrespect.

For that reason, it will be important to add a new policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But Hargett is part of a generation of young soldiers that accepts diversity more easily than previous ones. Millennials often equate homophobia with racism.

He’s also living in a time when more Americans of all ages (70 percent in a May Gallup poll) favor the repeal of this policy.

Hargett has no doubt that this change will take place.

“Gay people have been in the military since Day One,” says the former airman. “The sky hasn’t cracked. It’s going to happen, and it’s not going to be a big deal.”

Jamie Tobias Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her e-mail address is

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