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The "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays from serving openly will be stripped from the military's rulebook on Tuesday. The occasion could pass quietly. President Obama and the Defense Department have no plans for press conferences or major addresses, and DoD stopped enforcing it in July.
But for gay Marines, official repeal will be a historic day, comparable to the moment 63 years ago when President Truman ordered the services to end racial segregation.
For straight Marines, this will bring changes, too. "That's gay" — a pervasive phrase used throughout the Corps to express dislike for almost anything — will no longer be tolerated. Equal treatment will be a must. And yes, some gay Marines will bring dates to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball in November.
Even with repeal days away, most gay Marines interviewed for this story would speak only on the condition of anonymity. As such, each has been identified using a false first name. Some agonized over this decision but ultimately decided that outing themselves now could hurt their careers. They worry commanders will comply with the repeal — but reluctantly.
Their message to straight Marines is this: We're professionals. We're Marines first, and we have a mission to do.
As one major put it, "We've sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. We didn't join the Marine Corps to lurk in the showers."
President Obama certified to Congress on July 22 that repealing the ban would not hurt military operations. Although Commandant Gen. Jim Amos was initially concerned that repeal could affect military readiness, he has since directed his Marines to treat all peers, regardless of their sexual orientation, with "dignity and respect."
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett eased the concerns of many gay Marines when, in June, he bluntly told a room full of leathernecks that anyone ticked off about the change needs to "get over it."
"Marines have received their orders, and I am confident and trust that they will faithfully carry them out," Barrett told Marine Corps Times. "I expect Marines to continue to be competent, committed, consistently dependable, and of the highest moral and ethical character. … I want the Marines to continue to coalesce as a team. I want them to move forward. Let's do our job and move on."
Earlier this year, every Marine participated in an hourlong training program in which they were encouraged to ask any lingering questions. Topics ranged from sex in the barracks to preserving one's religious convictions.
Although optimistic, gay Marines interviewed for this story said some problems are inevitable. After all, the policy runs counter to deeply held beliefs of some Marines — and counter to some deep-seated cultural traits that have pervaded the Corps at large.
Marines' strong opposition to repeal could be fueled by a culture built on a rigid "warrior ethos," said Tammy Schultz, a professor at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va. She is co-editing a forthcoming collection of essays written by gay and straight service members titled "The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Personal Essays & Studies" and published by the Marine Corps University Press. Schultz, who is gay, also wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in November 2010, questioning why the Corps, at that time, was still backing "don't ask."
"Marines have almost an uber-warrior mindset," she told Marine Corps Times. "The commandant has even spoke of this. They recruit based on that warrior ethos. … There's the perception, in many cases wrongly, that homosexuals may display more effeminate qualities that may run counter to that warrior ethos."
Amos told reporters in December that he didn't want the repeal to pose a "distraction" to his Marines, and hinder readiness in the process. He was unavailable for comment, but his spokesman, Maj. Joseph Plenzler, provided the following statement: "Since the president signed the legislation setting the conditions for repeal last winter, Gen. Amos has led the Corps in carrying out the will of our commander in chief. He has personally spoken to countless thousands of Marines in every corner of the globe over the last eight months, as well as his senior leaders to communicate his expectations and provide his guidance. Gen. Amos expects that all Marines will be treated with dignity and respect."
Mark, a former enlisted Marine who is now attending the Naval Academy and working to become a Marine officer, said that although most will meet the commandant's expectations, there will be some who won't.
"I feel like you just can't beat the camaraderie in the Marine Corps," he said. "But with that, comes the whole homophobic attitude."
Jeff, who is gay, is a captain and company commander in an infantry battalion at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He expects some problems, and it will fall to him to handle it in his company.
Jeff said his biggest fear is that the first Marine to openly violate the new policy will be a company's No. 1 sergeant or superstar corporal. Will a commander bust his hard-charging favorite Marine? Or will he look the other way?
"The right answer is to punish him to the fullest extent of what he deserves," Jeff said. "Whether it's counseling or [nonjudicial punishment]. You need to set a standard."
Mitch is an imposing major in combat service support based in Quantico, Va. In his 40s, he said he has spent years keeping his sexual orientation a secret.
He's heard every gay slur through his career, and he's kept quiet, he said.
"Any time a peer says some offhand comment like 'Oh, that's so gay' or 'frickin' faggots' — and you don't confront them and say knock it off — it's like you're swallowing your courage, every time," Mitch said.
But recently, with the end of "don't ask" closing in, he has gotten more vocal about correcting that kind of behavior.
Before, he lived in fear that one of those junior Marines might start asking questions or cause problems for his career.
"I'm in a position now where I have the confidence to say that," said Mitch, who said that in the past he wouldn't even admit to liking National Public Radio for fear it might tip someone off.
The Birthday Ball
No one expects day-to-day operations of the Marine Corps to suddenly grind to a halt on Tuesday. But Marines believe in the sanctity of their traditions, and it could pose challenges.
"I think one of the things that most Marines are very worried about is the Marine Corps Ball," Schultz said. "That's been repeatedly brought up as an issue."
The reality is that this year, maybe at your local ball, a gay Marine could bring a guest.
"If I've got a date this year, I WILL take one," Mitch said emphatically. It will be a welcome return for the Marine, who was openly gay before joining the Corps. In 1993, while a civilian, he brought a date to President Clinton's inaugural ball.
"At the time, it took a lot of guts," he said. "But I was determined to do it."
Others showed more hesitation, at least for this year's birthday celebration.
Mark, whose partner is also a midshipman, said they will go together but will not be obvious about it.
"I'm not going to walk in there with him on my arm, but we definitely intend to go together," he said.
Cpl. AJ Garcia, who agreed to be identified in the story, is also in a serious relationship, but with a civilian. He said that while he isn't keeping his sexual orientation a secret, he's not quite ready to bring a date.
"Let them get used to it before I show up with my partner at the ball," he said. "You have to proceed with caution. You don't want to upset the wrong person."
The question on a lot of Marines' minds is whether two leathernecks will slow-dance together at the ball.
"It's going to happen, one way or another," said Robert, a field grade officer in combat service support in California, who has a partner and plans to serve openly.
"Will some Marines and family members not like it? I'm sure," he said. "But at the same time, just because they don't like it, it doesn't mean they can't respect those individuals for who they are."
He added, "Quite frankly, if that's the only thingwe need to worry about in the Marine Corps, we have big problems. That should not be the focus of the Corps, period."
Among senior Marine Corps leadership, there was one top concern: Will the repeal hurt unit cohesion and thereby military readiness?
Gay Marines argue this could actually improve it. For many gay Marines, "don't ask" has meant living a lie. Robert, for example, used to make up stories about seeing women.
"Yeah, I had girlfriends," he said. "Nobody ever saw my girlfriends."
Mitch, however, refused to lie about it. He didn't want to commit what he described as "gender f—-ing," or changing pronouns like "he" or "him" to "she" and "her." Instead, he withdrew from his fellow Marines. He was anti-social and as a result, he said, unit cohesion suffered.
"Rather than getting to know my peers and the Marines I work with and letting them know me, I've got to withdraw, go back to my corner." he said. "Go back home and isolate myself so we don't build those personal relationships that support the working relationships. You know, the camaraderie the Marine Corps is known for."
Among junior Marines, it's likely to be less of an issue and less likely to hinder unit cohesion, Robert said.
"I think they are much more aware of gay people because of their backgrounds, their schooling. They're not meeting a gay person for the first time when they join the Marine Corps. They've probably met one in high school," he said.
When Marine Corps Times asked readers for their opinions, however, one California-based corporal wrote in to argue that more Marines oppose this repeal than surveys may indicate.
"Some individuals truly disagree with gays in general, and will not tolerate this policy," said the corporal, assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. "Therefore, more Marines will decide to get out."
When asked how the repeal would impact mission accomplishment, he said, "I guess we'll find out."
Schultz said that, while there may be some truth that junior Marines have had more experience with openly gay peers, senior Marines tend to be more stringent when it comes to respecting the rules. With that in mind, higher-ranking Marines may be less apt to cause problems post-repeal.
On Tuesday, it's unlikely many gay Marines will come "screaming out of the closet," Schultz said.
"Some will come out in a very public way because I think they see it very much as a historic moment," Schultz said. "For others, it will be a much more private victory."
Mitch said the repeal will mean little to straight Marines.
"It's going to be a big yawn for the vast majority," he said. "For myself, and for [other gay Marines], it's a huge, huge, millstone taken from around our necks."