The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military, has climbed back onto the national stage in recent days. Last week the Air Force announced it plans to discharge a lesbian officer who has stayed open about her sexual orientation. That reverses the decision of an Air Force general earlier this year, who concluded that 1st Lt. Robin Chaurasiya shouldn't be discharged, saying she had declared she was gay to avoid military service.
The reversed decision comes against the backdrop of heightened protests against the "Don't Ask" policy. Six people in military uniforms, including Lt. Dan Choi, handcuffed themselves to a fence of the White House recently to protest the fact that the policy has not been repealed. Choi is an openly gay Iraq war veteran and West Point graduate who has emerged as one of the most prominent critics of the policy. The White House protest comes after GetEQUAL advocates heckled the president at a fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the military is engaged in a review of the potential impact of repealing the policy. Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced changes making it harder to discharge gays by restricting grounds for initiating an inquiry into a person's sexuality and by increasing the number of senior officers who must oversee the process. Also, Obama has said he favors repealing "Don't Ask."
When Chaurasiya, who lives in St. Louis, was in Chicago visiting friends this past weekend, she met with Truthout to talk about her situation in the Air Force.
She said that she has "always" known that she was a lesbian. "When I was like 12 or 13, I had my first girlfriend," she said, "and I've just always known." However, because she wanted to be in the Air Force so much, she figured that "four years would be no big deal" and that she could stomach not talking about or being open about being a lesbian.
Chaurasiya, who is stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, said she wasn't trying to avoid service but was trying to deal with what she feels is inequality. She has 10 days, or until April 29, to write a response to the Air Force's papers that state plans to discharge her. Then Air Force Secretary Michael Donley will make a final decision. That could take as little as a week or as long as a year, she said.
Lt. Col. Ann Stefanek, of Air Force Media Operations, said, "Secretary Donley is the final decision authority for all officer discharge actions. The secretary will make his decision once the entire case has been reviewed. There is no prescribed timeline."
The papers that the Air Force served Chaurasiya stated that she is a lesbian and that she and her partner joined each other in a civil union in New Hampshire. Chaurasiya said she can't dispute the issues. She said the military has some leeway in how to react to her situation, but she calls "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" a "messed-up" policy and said she wants to use her case as a way to show how "messed up" it is.
Stefanek said that originally the Air Force "rendered a decision after careful consideration of the law and evidence presented at that time weighing all facts and circumstances pertinent to the case and acting in the best interest of the Air Force." That is, the Air Force concluded that Chaurasiya shouldn't be discharged, contending she had declared her sexual orientation for the purpose of avoiding military service. However, Stefanek said, "A subsequent inquiry was initiated and confirmed the authenticity and credibility of Lt. Chaurasiya's civil union certificate corroborating her previous statement. Based on the additional information, a discharge action was initiated."
Chaurasiya, who grew up in and around Seattle, said she decided to become open about being a lesbian in the Air Force after she studied and earned a master's degree in gender studies in Budapest at Central European University, which she described as a much more open-minded environment than the Air Force.
Previous to studying in Budapest, she earned a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship while at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where she studied psychology and political science before she started her service in the Air Force.
After graduating from IIT in May 2006, Chaurasiya was deployed to Turkey in June 2006 for active duty on an air base. In June 2007, she was accepted into a program called Palace Chase, which let her transition from active duty to reserve. In July 2007, she started working at Whiteman Air Force Base in Kansas City, where she handled administrative duties.
While Chaurasiya was on reserve in Turkey, Chaurasiya's father became very ill. "It hit me: 'My dad might pass away,'" she said. So, she asked to get out of the military in spring 2008; she said she wanted to leave the military for a bit for family and education reasons, and a general agreed to let her go.
In July 2008, Chaurasiya moved to Budapest to pursue studies there. Then in October 2008, her dad passed away in Seattle.
In March 2009, Chaurasiya got a letter from the Air Force calling her for active duty to Scott Air Force Base; she was simultaneously working to finish her thesis. She graduated in June, and in July she returned to active duty at Scott Air Force Base, which is near St. Louis.
After being surrounded by many open-minded lesbians and other people in Budapest while enrolled in the gender studies program, Chaurasiya she said she could no longer tolerate the military environment. She said that the constant jokes about homosexuality irked her much more, having experienced such a contrast. Also, she said, she grew tired of hearing jokes about other aspects of her identity, such as feminism, environmentalism and vegetarianism.
Asked to respond to Chaurasiya's description of the military environment as homophobic and conducive to rude comments about gay people, Stefanek declined to comment.
Studying in Budapest, Chaurasiya said, made her realize "how much oppression, power and gender relations are tied into not just gender relations but the military."
Also, she said, "Being a woman of color and feminist and liberal and atheist and vegetarian - all these things just don't fit in with the military" and "it is a really difficult place to handle."
Chaurasiya said she didn't know how closed-minded the military would be, and she said it frustrates her when people say it's a "normal" working environment.
"It's not," she said. "It's a misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing, closed-minded work environment."
When she returned from Budapest in July 2009, she said she realized, "I hate how, in the military, you're supposed to be one of the guys and make the same jokes. Why should I get used to it?"
Instead, Chaurasiya said, she said she hopes to spur a change in the military environment. She said that service members watch FOX news at the base and that if talk about gays in the military comes up, someone will make a rude comment, such as "I don't want to have to cover my ass when I go to the bathroom." She added, "Not a day goes by without jokes" about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Chaurasiya said she thinks that within a year the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy will change. "I understand it takes a lot of time to get things done," she said.
Talking about her being open as a lesbian in the military, Chaurasiya said, "I don't regret it."
Although some people in the military in leadership positions have treated her warmly, Chaurasiya said that the daily environment was always difficult because "nobody wants to be the one to stand up and say 'shut up'" about closed-minded comments that others make.
She said that she is no longer willing to be part of her Air Force team because it compromises too many things that she stands for, such as equality.
Even though she said she doesn't have immediate plans to take legal action, Chaurasiya said she is in touch with a few lawyers, openly gay activist Dan Choi and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. She said that she doesn't think going to court would help change the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy more quickly, but she also said she'll have to continue to evaluate her situation.
In an ideal world, Chaurasiya said, she would change the work environment in the military and stay in the military, "but unfortunately, that's not going to happen." She worries it would take too many battles to work her way up in the hierarchy inside the military. Instead, she said, talking about her situation to the media is a faster way to make change.
"If I [need] to be one of the troublemakers to make this policy move," Chaurasiya said, "then I'm happy to."