Lt. Col. Steve Loomis was discharged from the military in 1997, five days before he was eligible for retirement. He'd been in the Army on active duty for almost 20 years and in the Reserve for another 10.
More than 14,000 service members have been discharged in 16 years under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. "That's enough to form an entire Army infantry division," Loomis points out.
His case went to Federal Court, and he won by arguing the Army did not follow its own regulations and discharge procedures. "The judge was looking for the easiest way to decide the case," he says. Nine years after he was kicked out of the military, Loomis got his retirement. He returned home to New Mexico and joined the state’s chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights, of which he is now president. Last year, members marched in the Albuquerque Veterans Day parade for the first time.
The Alibi caught up with Loomis to talk about 2010's attempts to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as well as his life in the service.
When you joined the military, did you already know that you were gay?
Not really. I think perhaps I had a good idea that I might in some way be different. It wasn't until after I joined the military that I finally figured that I was gay. When you're trying to sort those things out, you go through a process, and many gays have experienced it. First of all, you just have to figure out that, OK, you may in fact be different. Somewhere down the line you have to come to an acknowledgment and acceptance of that. So that all takes time.
Was that more challenging because you were in the Army?
It was mostly a matter of remaining private. It does get difficult though, when you hear jokes just in the course of conversation. That can be offensive and difficult for a lot of people to handle.
You had to be careful about what you were saying and who you were saying it to. Obviously, most of your same-sex relationships were while you were off-duty and certainly away from work. I made it a point to keep those issues quite separate during my time in the military.
“I've always maintained that a gay in the military has to be a better soldier than your average man simply to survive and succeed.”
Lt. Col. Steve Loomis
Some of my friends knew. In fact, at least one of my general officers knew, or suspected, I should say. You develop friendships. You—at least if you're intelligent about it—determine those you can or cannot trust. The more you do that, the more difficult it is.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell passed during the Clinton administration in 1993. What was the policy before that?
It was a strict prohibition against being gay in the military. Of course with Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the major difference was that it was OK to be gay, but you could not express that or act on it, either privately or publicly.
If the individual you expressed that to privately in your home or off base or whatever, if they then took that information to the military, the military could use that as a basis to begin an investigation.
So you could still get discharged for being gay.
That is correct. That is one of the big fallacies of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It forces gays into the situation where if they are discovered—intentionally or unintentionally—they can be discharged for it. You cannot verbalize that you're gay, regardless of whether you have any physical relations.
That resulted in what some people thought was an improvement in 1993. I think President Clinton certainly thought that at the time.
There were more discharges for homosexuality after Don't Ask, Don't Tell was implemented than there was before.
How did Don't Ask, Don't Tell make things worse?
So much is often left to the commanders in how they interpret information that they may gain about gays in the military.
One thing that has always concerned me as a professional officer is that women in the military have always been at a disadvantage under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, regardless of whether they're gay or straight. The reason for that is, you get some guy in the military who is attracted to a woman in the military. He wants to go out with her and get involved. She has no attraction to him and turns him down. Well, that young stud, his first response is, It's not my problem. I wonder what's wrong with her.
Next thing you know, someone sparks a scuttlebutt that well, she must be a dyke, to use a common term. Once that sort of thing happens, it's next to impossible for the woman to fight that perception or reverse that perception. It's extremely difficult for a woman in the military, gay and straight. Women are discharged at an even higher rate than men under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Did it ever seem like something that was hanging over you? You had a secret that someone could use to end your career.
That's a concern. That's why a number of gays in the military become extremely upset. I've always maintained that a gay in the military has to be a better soldier than your average man simply to survive and succeed. There are many examples of that, where gay soldiers are in fact highly decorated and successful soldiers.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that straight soldiers aren't as good. All walks of life can be good soldiers, but in the case of gays, with that sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, they have to be more careful, be better at their work, in order to avoid that scrutiny.
“ ... it succeeded because the leadership took the bull by the horns and made it happen and enforced the new rules.”
Lt. Col Steve Loomis
For a lot of people in the gay community—and gays in the military in particular—it's been very up and down. Each time there's been another step ... people had to go out on the Internet and on the news and tell people: Do not come out yet. It is not law.
When the policy is repealed—and it will be repealed eventually—then we have to move to the issue of implementing the policy and making sure people don't violate the new law.
As to the probability of this passing now, I think there is a good chance that Don't Ask Don't Tell will be repealed in the lame duck session, but it is certainly not definite.
Did your experience at the end of your career change your general feeling toward the military?
I think I can honestly say that no, it did not in general terms change. I am proud of the time I spent in the service. If I weren't too old, I would go back into the service if the policy were repealed. No, it didn't change my opinion in that respect. The people involved in my investigation, I tend to hold those people responsible for enforcing a law that they should have known was unconstitutional.
If it is repealed, what needs to happen among the ranks?
This is not the first time we've dealt with the issue in the military of the civil rights of members of the military. That fight began as far back as the Revolutionary War when you had blacks involved in the Boston Tea Party. During the Civil War, there were entire units in the Union army made up of black soldiers. Following World War II, President Truman ordered integration of black and white units. That took time, but it succeeded because the leadership took the bull by the horns and made it happen and enforced the new rules.
That's exactly what can and will happen when the policy is finally repealed, whether it's in a month or in 10 years or whatever. When the Department of Defense sets new rules, it's important that the commander sets the example and enforces new policy. When they do that, the soldiers follow suit, even those that may not agree with the policy. It's been the same with the integration of blacks and other minorities, with the integration women in the service and now we hope the integration of gays.
Beyond civil rights, what are some of the benefits of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell?
If we want to keep improving our military, every soldier must be judged—straight or gay—not by what he or she does consensually in their private bedroom, but how well they do their job and if they succeed in their mission. Mission achievement in the military is prime.
In Vietnam where I had my combat experience, we sat in the dust and the mud, we slept side by side. When the enemy was shooting at us and rounds were sailing toward us, we huddled together in our positions. No one asked if that guy beside him was gay. They only asked, Does he have his steel pot on? Is his riffle ready? And is his mind clear?
If one of our soldiers is hit by an IED in Iraq, for example, do you think he would question if that medic who came to help him was gay and send him away? Probably not.
The bottom line, for me and a lot of other people, is that when equal rights are extended to gays, they will serve as well and as faithfully as anyone else in the military. Interesting thing is few people but themselves will notice any difference. Definitely our country will be safer for it.
Last year was the first year the local chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights marched in the Veterans Day parade, right?
Yes. We were a little bit nervous. Our reception was entirely positive. People all along the route applauded as we went by, and we had a big banner out there that said who we were along with our color guard. We have the U.S. flag, our chapter flag, the New Mexico flag, and by golly, yes, we've got the rainbow flag.