Editors' Note: Guest blogger Mary Barber, MD, is a psychiatrist and member of the LGBT committee of the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry.
Imagine one day at work that you are being evacuated because of a terrorist attack. However getting out of the office alive and in one piece is not your only anxiety that day. As you head for the nearest exit, it occurs to you that no one at your job will know who to contact if anything happens to you.
This was not an imaginary scenario for retired Navy Captain Joan Darrah. Assigned to work at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, she got out safe. But for several hours that day she was unable to reach her partner by cell phone. During that time she realized that if something had happened, Darrah's female partner of many years would not know as she could not be listed with the Navy as an emergency contact under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
The military's policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving is now being reconsidered, and that is a very good thing for the psychological wellbeing of those who serve. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" doesn't always lead to heartstopping realizations like Captain Darrah's, but it is the cause of daily lies and omissions.
Imagine yourself again at work. What will you say when your colleague asks about your weekend? Or about the new piece of clothing or jewelry your spouse gave you? Could you go a day, a week, a month, or even years without mentioning your spouse, your family, your home life?
Years ago, the military excluded gays and lesbians from service because homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness. Psychiatrists of an earlier era endorsed that view, and helped screen out gay men and lesbians from military eligibility. All that changed when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual in 1973. APA went further in 1990, issuing a position statement that non-discrimination in the workplace should include the armed services, and that gays and lesbians should be allowed to openly serve.
Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," today's military psychiatrists feel they can't fully do their jobs as physicians entrusted with servicemembers' mental health. They are not able to ask their patients about anything that might reveal the person is gay or lesbian. At the same time, gay and lesbian soldiers who need therapy for depression or post-traumatic stress cannot fully discuss their lives in therapy without fear of being reported and losing their jobs. This can compromise mental health treatment as well as create rifts in the doctor-patient relationship. With servicemembers under enormous stress from repeated deployments in two wars, access to effective and confidential treatment is particularly important at this time.
It has been argued that openly gay soldiers would interfere with unit cohesion. Yet "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" itself harms unit cohesion. How well could you trust a coworker if you thought she was a loner with no life, or you thought he was always hiding something from you? How close would you feel to your fellow employees if you could not share with them your worry about you spouse's illness, or the break up of your relationship?
Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would end our servicemembers' daily need to hide and lie, and allow them to get good mental health treatment without fear when they need it. For these reasons, Congress should act quickly to reverse this policy.