The Senate voted Saturday to end the 17-year ban on openly gay troops, overturning the Clinton-era policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I was in tears about it,” says Dan Hendrick, a gay veteran who was discharged from the United States Navy over 19 years ago for being gay. At the time, he was struggling with his sexuality and expressed interest in another servicemember who he thought was gay.
“He actually went to the authorities,” he says. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule was not in effect yet, so Henrick was honorably discharged and still received military benefits. But it thrust him out of the closet to his family and friends. His military friends turned their backs on him out of fear they would be next.
“It was devastating to me personally,” he says. He was only 21 when it happened.
Henrick now lives with New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, an outspoken advocate for gay rights. He said he sees the repeal of “dont ask, don’t tell” as a step towards further equality for the gay and lesbian community.
“I hope it’s an acknowledgement that the over 13,000 gay men and lesbians who were removed from the military for being gay,” he says. “It’s an acknowledgement that their service was indeed important and worthy.”
The change won’t take immediate effect, however. The legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that lifting the ban won’t hurt troops’ fighting ability. After that, there’s a 60-day waiting period for the military.
The repeal means that for the first time in U.S. history, gays will be openly accepted by the military and can acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being discharged. Thousands of gay service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law. Before that, they had been explicitly barred from military service since World War I.
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