While all of the photographs published in my first photobook "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1" are of closeted service members currently serving, I was recently approached by a cadet who is now facing discharge for coming out, and I chose to open up the scope of my photography series to include her. This past weekend, I photographed Sara, a North Carolina ROTC cadet, who this past January, could no longer lie to her commander and came out to him as a lesbian. He immediately asked her to formally take back her statement, and when she refused, he pressed for her discharge.
The only items that Sara had for our photo shoot were a few parts of her former uniform that she had secretly saved and not returned back a few weeks ago when she was dropped from her military classes and asked to return all her military gear. While taking her picture, I was incredibly moved in seeing the angst and sadness in her as she looked at the last remnants of what could have been an incredibly promising future serving our country.
More after the jump - including another picture and an e-mail from Sara.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Lt. Dan Choi going back to train with his unit, and one of my fears in the aftermath of this post, was that the public would mistakenly take this as a definitive signal that discharges were no longer being pursued.
My meeting and photo shoot with Sara this past weekend reminded me that discharges are definitely still happening despite the recent developments on the issue, and her ongoing battle with DADT stood in very sharp contrast to Lt. Dan Choi. First of all, Sara is a woman, and many studies have shown that the rates of discharge of women under DADT are far higher than that for men. She is also in a unit stationed in the South, and her commander, unlike Choi's, has quite forcibly moved forward on her discharge.
In his recent commentary in the New Republic, DADT expert Nathaniel Frank questions the value of the "study period" of DADT right now, and suspects this is just a delay tactic and warns of the parallels between now and 1993.
Taking this into account, we should not be complacent about the issue and just expect DADT to be repealed. While the paperwork for Sara's discharge has not been completely finalized, she is simply waiting for the discharge papers to be mailed to her, which could arrive any day. Sara is also waiting to hear back to see if and how she will have to pay back the $80,000 in scholarship money she received for her education. She stated to me, "I have signed my counseling statement, and when we met a few weeks ago my commander said that he would be moving forward with my discharge. I have not attended any ROTC training since I came out, and was immediately dropped from my ROTC class after talking to my commander."
I want to end this post by simply reprinting a very touching e-mail that Sara wrote to me to include as part of the text to her photograph in my forthcoming "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 2" publication, planned to be released in the Fall. Her words are far more powerful in describing the pain and suffering that the policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" inflicts on those in our military, and the harm that these discharges are causing to the future of our armed forces, and why this policy needs to end soon.
From: Sara, a North Carolina ROTC cadet
To: Jeff Sheng
Date: March 1, 2010 9:58:22 PM PST
The more I've thought about it, though, the more I don't want to feel like I need to hide. For me, coming out--both in general and more specifically to my commander--was about not having to hide and completely compartmentalize all the different parts of my life. As I said in my written statement when I came out to my commander, "I am strongly driven by adherence to my values. During my time as a Cadet in the _______ Battalion, I have worked hard to exemplify my own values, in addition to the Army Values. It is these core values that drive me, and my Honor and Integrity prevent me from not being fully honest about who I am. I have learned to strive for excellence and am not content telling half truths."
Doing this photoshoot with you has been really cathartic for me, and I want to thank you for the opportunity. Even though it feels like things are dragging now and I want nothing more than for this whole process to be over with, things have happened really quickly and there's a lot that I haven't processed yet. Even though I haven't felt comfortable identifying as straight for at least 5 years or so, I didn't start fully identifying as lesbian until just over 3 months ago. I feel as if this should be a time in my life where I am exploring and celebrating my newly acknowledged queer identity. Instead of having time to figure out how this piece fits into who I already am, I've lost another identity--another part of myself--that I saw as equally important. Even though I've been "playing Army" for the past four years rather than living it every day, Cadet would have been one of the first words I used to describe myself.
I'm still grieving for the loss of that part of myself. Not only was it a way that I defined myself and something that I still love; it was a dream and vision I had held of my life's path for the past eight years. I didn't grow up saying that I wanted to be a doctor, it was always that I wanted to be an Army doctor. I had always envisioned myself doing a full military career, and now that opportunity has been taken away because of something irrelevant to my potential as an officer. None of the qualities that made me the #3 cadet in my platoon of 43 at training this summer have changed because I came out. In fact, I am more at peace and comfortable with myself than I have ever been, and I think this actually translates to being a better leader now that I don't have to spend energy fighting with myself and questioning my orientation. I guess that I just don't understand how people can make a valid argument that sexual orientation has more of an impact on unit cohesion than other aspects of identity like religion or race.
I've been trying to find a way to describe what it was like when I decided that I was going to come out to my commander, but I don't think I have words that adequately portray the intensity of that day. I was in the middle of ROTC training when I realized that the Army was asking me to sacrifice things that I am not willing to compromise on--my values--and that I was going to come out to my commander, knowing that it would probably get me kicked out. I came back to my room, realized it would likely be the last time I ever wore my uniform and broke down. I cried for almost an hour before I was willing to take it off. In that moment, my uniform represented all the hours I'd poured into training, all the mornings of waking up at 5:30 to go to PT, all of the people who doubted my ability due to my gender, the sexist and heterosexist attitudes I've encountered on a daily basis from peers, superiors, and subordinates and have not confronted, the strength I've found in an effort to prove everyone around me wrong; it was eight years of hopes and dreams and nearly four years of work that I wasn't ready to part with yet. It was an intensity of emotion that I've only experienced one other time in my life.
I realize that it's easy for me to come off as anti-Army when I talk about my experiences, and I don't want that to be the case. Even after being kicked out and the things that my commander has said to me, there are things about the Army that I love and miss. I have an incredible respect for everyone who is serving, and particularly for the LGBTQ service members who sacrifice so much in order to be able to continue serving. I also recognize that while coming out to my commander was the right choice for me, there are many people for whom it is not, and that everyone has to make their own decision about this.
There is not anything about my participation in ROTC that I regret. I have learned so much more from the past four years than how to run a situational training exercise (STX) lane or accurately fire an M16. I've found out a lot about working with people and have a new way of looking at leadership and the accompanying skill set. Most importantly, I've discovered a strength that I didn't know I possessed and found a poise and command presence that surprises everyone who has known me for more than a few years. These are things that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, even though I won't get the opportunity to use them as a Platoon Leader. Some of my closest friends are also people I never would have known without ROTC. These are people who have shaped and impacted my life in very real ways, and I would not be the same person without them.