(WASHINGTON) — For many gays and lesbians in the military, the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring them from serving openly has put an end to the distraction of living in fear, allowing them — as one said — to “focus on the mission.”
It was a year ago this past week that President Obama signed into law a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Although that ended the legal underpinnings for the ban on openly gay troops, it was only on Sept. 20 that the nearly 18-year-old policy was fully repealed.
For many of the thousands of gay and lesbian troops who will continue to serve in the military, it was a major burden lifted from their shoulders.
“Now I don’t have to worry about someone trying to end my career,” Staff Sgt. Steve Proctor told ABC News’ Jake Tapper. “It’s very important to me to be a soldier and also to be a leader of these soldiers, especially other soldiers that are gay like me.”
Proctor said one of the biggest misconceptions he dealt with were doubts about whether he’d be able to effectively lead troops despite his sexual orientation. “It was a struggle,” said the 27-year-old staff sergeant, who’s served for almost 10 years. “I had to make sure no one knew about it for the simple fact that if they did find out, I didn’t want someone to try kicking me out.”
Capt. Eric Sattleberg said that before the repeal of the policy, he was forced to lead a double life in the military. For the past decade he chose to hide under the umbrella of “being straight” so his homosexuality was never in question. He’d visit strip clubs with other soldiers and partake in conversations pertaining to relationships with women.
“I didn’t want to come in and battle that, battle that fight with being gay in the military,” he said.
Sattleberg wasn’t the only one living an alternate life. Petty Officer Erin Jones said that before the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” her experience in the military was “sickening.”
“I would go and date other men and I would go out with guys and spend a lot of time with guys trying to make it look like I was straight,” she said. “I had a huge battle with my sexuality for a long time.”
Jones said a lesbian couple serving with her was forced to separate, and she knew of another lesbian couple who was kicked out. Fearing her superiors would figure out the truth about her sexual orientation, Jones said she would even try to have relationships with men on her base.
Jones told ABC News that a lot of soldiers she knows were angry about the focus placed on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“We’re in a war, we don’t need to focus on gays being allowed to serve,” she said.
But she said that for her, at least, putting an end to the ban meant an end to one of the major distractions she faced. “Since the laws changed, we can focus on the mission and we don’t have to worry about being strung up for who we are,” Jones said.
She said it was a relief, mostly because now soldiers won’t have to endure the struggle that she and other homosexual soldiers lived through. “I wanted to talk about my girlfriend, but I would have to change the pronoun and have to say ‘him,'” she said. “It sickened me inside to have to do that.”
For other soldiers, though, the transition wasn’t as smooth.
Proctor broke the news to one of his best friends and said the friendship ended soon after. “One of my best friends in the army of 10 years and I told him,” Proctor said. He also said he didn’t regret his decision because he was tired of fighting with his identity.
“I thought I could trust him, he’s denied that, some people aren’t going to accept you for who you are, we all know that,” Proctor said.
For Proctor and several other soldiers, the repeal lifted a heavy weight off their shoulders. Proctor says many soldiers may still not open up due to their personal lives at home, religion, or that they still haven’t seen higher ranking soldiers coming out.
“We have to show the standard that we can still lead troops, I am gay as I want to be and you can do the same thing,” Proctor said.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Stephen Collinson, CNN
Shelbie Harris, Idaho State Journal
Ruth Brown, Idaho Press-Tribune