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“The Military Contradicts Eveything It Stands For” – Lesbian Service Member

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-09-22

Allison Jones is just one of many people trying to maintain two identities. She appears to others in her work environment to be like most young women who have chosen to enlist in the Air Force; she is hard-working, dedicated and has a great future to look forward to. And she is a lesbian.

In the civilian world, a person's private life is rarely scrutinized as much as it is in the Military. For Jones, keeping her two worlds separate is a necessity. If she chose to be open about her sexuality, she would most likely be discharged from a career that she not only believes in, but also one that she truly loves.

"Being in the military is a real sense of pride [for me]. I don't think that anyone can deny the feeling of pride, but the thing is, how much pride can a person have in this job if they can't even be themselves?"

Jones told Japan Update in a recent interview under the strict guidelines that her real name would not be used.

According to the non-profit organization, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), women like Jones have a reason to fear losing their job. In the sixth annual report on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell….", the SLDN found that women made up 31% of gay discharges in 1999, although women represent only 14% of the force. Mention the words "homosexual" and "military" together in a conversation and often a debate ensues.

"The military contradicts everything that it stands for. When you join, you join to serve and protect the Constitution…the same constitution that gives us our freedoms and rights. By being in the military they are taken away," said Jones.

Imagine a world in which being heterosexual was considered deviant. A world that would not allow you to hold the hand of your partner in public, let alone, marry the person who you loved, and a world in which seemingly open-minded people made jokes using words like "fag" or "queer" (only in this world it would be "straight").

This describes the world that many homosexuals have become accustomed to, especially military members who are forced to hide their true self, for fear of harassment or even death. Even in this era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell… " the climate of hostility has not abated, and according to the SLDN, incidents of harassment continue, often unchecked.

The SLDN documented 968 incidents of anti-gay harassment, "including murder, assaults, death threats and verbal gay bashing from February 15, 1999, to February 15, 2000". This was a substantial increase from the previous year's report of 400 incidents.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell…" was enacted into law in 1993, after President Bill Clinton failed to convince Congress to change the Military's policy to allow gays into the armed forces. Many politicians and groups are now lobbying against the policy of compromise, especially after last year's brutal murder of Army Private First Class Barry Winchell, who had before his death, confided only in friends about the constant harassment he had endured because of rumors about his sexuality.

Even though the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have adopted anti-gay harassment training, the SLDN believes that the training is not enough. "The policy itself ensure the perpetuation of false stereotypes about a group of people who serve our country by denying heterosexuals the opportunity to know that they, in fact, know gay people."

Inevitably, gay and lesbian military members are forced to find groups that are accepting of who they are, groups that offer them an escape from isolation and the ability to make honest friendships. Overseas, finding such a group might seem unlikely, but here in Okinawa, one has been growing now for two years.

The Gay Okinawa Network was founded in November 1998 with the purpose of providing gays and lesbians a group environment where friendships could flourish, and where military members, civilians and local nationals could feel less alone. Kim Sagendorf, the program coordinator for the University of Maryland's graduate office and a student in school's master's program in counseling started the group by placing an ad in the Japan Update.

"I was in a safe position to start the group, being a heterosexual woman, I didn't have to fear harassment. I felt it was the right thing to do, especially since I grew up with homosexual friends and family members in my life," Sagendorf said.

Currently, the group's membership is comprised of roughly 50% military, 30 % civilians and 20% local nationals. The group has also seen great diversity since it began and the ages of its members' range from the teens to age 63. The group continues to grow as word spreads from word of mouth, through local news sources and the Internet. The Group now meets twice a month.

Sagendorf doesn't want people to get the wrong impression of the group as a singles club. "We are not a dating service and we don't encourage swingers. We are a friendship group."

"I have met approximately 100 people since I started and I receive about 3 e-mails and 4 phone calls a week regarding the group. Many calls have been parents and family members who have contacted me for information on how to deal with a gay or lesbian family member," Sagendorf said.

When an article about the group appeared in the Stars and Stripes this March, Sagendorf received about 50 emails from gays, lesbians and supporters in the US, Japan, Korea and Germany.

Jones and many others are very grateful to Sagendorf for starting the group. "Dealing with homosexuality in the military can cause a lot of stress and now there is a meeting that you can go to where the people are happy and themselves," said Jones.

Steven Smith, who is a servicemember in the Navy, is also an active member of the Gay Okinawa Network and he agrees that the existence of the group has been a blessing for him. "Living two different lives is difficult in the military. Knowing that the group is there when I need help or when I want to talk about things that I can't discuss on base has been wonderful…it is like having a second family away from the military," Smith told Japan Update.

"When I was younger, and in the Marine Corps, I went through a time of depression because of my homosexuality. I had no one to talk to and the pressure started to get to me."

"I feel more comfortable now that I have matured in age. I have learned to separate the two worlds; I feel safe being myself in the civilian world because I exposed myself to my community at a young age. I still think that the military needs to have a clearer policy than "Don't ask, Don't tell" because it can be confusing."

Civilian Tate Wilson says that the group has made his life more comfortable in dealing with the island community. "When you can feel open and honest with people a real weight is lifted off your shoulders."

Wilson, who knew at a very young age that he was gay, came out about 10 years ago when he left his hometown. Even though he is a civilian he still feels pressured to keep his sexuality private. "Why do I have to lie about my sexuality? Being gay or straight should not be an issue; there are larger issues to deal with, like poverty, child abuse and crime," said Wilson.

"Here in Okinawa we are forced back in the closet a little," civilian Kevin Hart told Japan Update. Hart was completely open while he was living in the States but feels limited living in the small community of Okinawa.

Hart found out about the group through a contact on the Internet. "I was surprised at the size of the group and the diversity of its members. The group has been good for me because I have had the freedom to talk about issues that I can't in my current position."

Not so surprisingly, many members are local nationals, struggling with the same issues that civilians and military members do. Akiko Higa is bisexual and has been a member of the group for almost two years. She has been open to some of her friends and siblings, but she doesn't feel she can tell her parents.

"In Okinawa, we don't talk about homosexuality or bisexuality. It is difficult to know whether people will accept you or not. And because of our religious practice of ancestor worship, children are expected to continue the family heritage by marrying and having children. This is especially true for the first-born son," said Higa.

"When I joined the group, it was the first time in my life that I didn't feel alone. I was able to share my feelings and problems with people just like me and it was a relief. After the meetings started, I realized that there were so many people who were keeping silent about their sexuality, which was very sad."

Higa and many others hope that the group will continue to grow for years to come. They also hope that the day will come when they don't have to keep their homosexuality hidden from co-workers, friends or family members.

The risks of being "outed" in the community are still very real for the group's members, which is why Sagendorf must screen every potential member. " I speak to each person first to make sure they are not a spy, but even then, members take a risk because I can't be 100 % certain that a person is genuine. If the members don't take the risk though, they ultimately risk being isolated."

Higa agrees that the isolation of gays, lesbians and bisexuals can not continue. "If we keep saying this is a "private" thing, we will never be accepted by society. We can't remain isolated forever. Gay people live in the same society that heterosexuals do, and we are all human beings who live in one world."

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.

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