An Interview With a Lesbian Lieutenant Stuck In 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Limbo
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Editor's Note: President Obama reached a deal with key democrats on repealing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. However, he also wants to hold off on actually making the law effective until after the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff conduct a full review. Gay activists say it is a big step forward on a campaign promise made by the President. Republicans are complaining that the President is using the military to advance a liberal political agenda. But what about the service men and women actually caught in "don't ask, don't tell" limbo? More than 16,000 service members have been discharged for violating this policy since it went into effect in 1993. Lt. Robin Chaurasiya is one of them. She got her discharge papers this year after having served in the Air Force since 2006. She spoke with Sandip Roy from St. Louis, Mo.
What do you make of this compromise -- vote to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell now but hold off on implementing it while the Pentagon conducts its review?
It's kicking the can further down the road. The fact is it doesn't have a timeline. This thing could be implemented a year or two years afterwards, we never know. The other thing is it doesn't include a non-discrimination clause. There's a big difference between repealing a policy and officially (calling for) non-discrimination against LGBT members.
How did the Air Force find out you were gay?
When I first came back on active duty about a year ago I had written an email to about 200 people -- people I keep updated on my life. I had basically said, 'Hey, I had moved to St. Louis and there’s this really cool girl I am dating.' There was one male that I had dated in my entire life, he was also former military, and he forwarded that email to my commander.
What happened then?
My commander put it very well. He said, 'I am not going to do anything about this because I can't confirm it.' Then he said one line that really set me off. As I was walking out the door, he said, 'If I were you, I would make sure that nobody else makes such a claim on my character.' It just really upset me about this being a character flaw. Finally, about a week after that, I wrote him a memorandum and just laid it out: Yes I am a lesbian and I refuse to be told this is a character flaw. That's how the discharge happened.
You were given your discharge papers but you are still in the Air Force. Why is that?
The complicated part is when the discharge was initiated I wasn't discharged. I was told, 'We don't believe you are lesbian.' A couple of weeks later I married my girlfriend. Then they served another discharge packet and determined I am a lesbian but I was doing this in order to get out of the military. And thirdly when all of this hit the press a higher ranking general took it over and determined I needed to be discharged. That was over a month ago. I am still serving. The irony is that everyone claims it's bad for morale, hurts unit cohesion. If that's the case, what am I still doing here? That’s the Catch 22 of the situation.
Are there people who have actually pretended to be gay in order to avoid deployment as the military alleged in your case?
I don't know of any cases. Telling someone you are gay or lesbian is not something we do lightly. It means you are going to face a lot of discrimination and have to suffer the consequences.
What's it like to be a South Asian lesbian in your unit now that everyone knows about your orientation?
It's been a mixture. To be honest, my airmen are all young guys in their 20s, and they couldn't care less. A few of the sergeants, who are of the older generation, also have been very supportive and think this policy is horrible. There have been a couple of people here and there I have gotten hate mail from. There have been a couple of people with serious problems about gays in the military. But my view is they need to go, not me.
How does this policy work on the ground? Does that mean you cannot have pictures of your wife on display?
I have not had the guts to do that. As far as legality goes, that’s the problem. She works for an organization that does not have very good health care. She needs knee surgery but we can't do anything about that because the military won’t recognize her as my partner. Socially speaking, I've also been told by my commander that she's not allowed at spouse meetings or family picnics.
You knew you were gay before your joined the military. Why did you join?
I have a lot of conversations with Lt. Dan Choi. We all have this underlying theme about where we got this idea to serve our country. As a teenager I traveled to India several times and it hit me hard the concept of what I was gaining from being an American -- just the resources and education. As a child of immigrants you feel I owe this country something. Unfortunately as a teenager, the only organization with that rhetoric is the military. As teenagers I would say we are very vulnerable to having the military recruit them. You can serve your country. You can pay back your bills and save freedom and all that. To a 16-year-old Indian that sounds great. But reality sets in very soon.
But you knew the rules.
At the time when I came into the military and was applying for the scholarship I didn't know the details of the policy. It wasn't until I landed in ROTC training on my first day and they made us do a ton of paperwork and there is a line in the paperwork that says you have never committed and will not commit any homosexual conduct and that was when I sat there and thought about it for a couple of minutes. But in the end I wanted it badly enough that I was willing to hide this for four years or eight years or however long it took.
Were you dating women while hiding it?
I dated a couple of women while in college, not when I was on active duty. And then when I was off active duty for a year.
There isn't an underground gay life in the military?
I shouldn't say this, but of course there is. There is no way that there can't be. There are people in St Louis I am friends with, other people from the base who are gay and lesbian. Each base has its own scene.
And your family?
My sister has always known. She was the first person I came out to. My father passed away about a year and half ago so I never told him. My mother now lives in India, so she is kind of sheltered from everything that's going on. It would be a very different story were my parents in America and my dad still live.
Which is harder for you -- being out in the Indian immigrant community or the military?
I would say the military. Since there was a local article run about me, a lot of people approach me and say, 'I hope everything works out for you.' But oh my goodness, I take the train into the base every day and I definitely have people there who recognize me and just give me this look. In the Indian community, I am close to a lot of people in Chicago in the Indian LGBT scene and they have been incredibly supportive.
Are you afraid your mother will find out?
No, I am not. My family is not in the Internet phase. None of my family has any concept of using the Internet to check email. So I don't think they will find out unless I tell them.
This big review that the military is conducting by December is to find out if the military is ready to have gay and lesbian soldiers serving openly. Do you feel that it's ready?
Certainly. The thing is there are a couple of stragglers -- a few people who are anti-gay. But let's face it -- there are people who were anti-blacks being in the military, anti-women being in the military and those are the people who really need to change their attitude. The military still conducts a lot of trainings on things like cultural awareness and preventing sexual assault and harassment and it's not such a big deal to add one more class, to have people get accustomed to one more thing. As I said, the airmen couldn't care less. It’s the generals who are sitting around and making these decisions. They are not quite in touch with today's airmen.
Is this fight worth it for you?
I am really upset about this approach they have taken that we are going to get our time out of you but you had better keep all the other stuff quiet. Unfortunately the remainder of time I have to serve, all of these laws won't change for myself to have benefits.
How long do you have left to serve?
If it does get repealed this year, would you like to serve longer?
I think I'll have to answer that after two years.
What's your next step?
Right now I am just waiting to see what happens with my paperwork. Right now it's with the secretary of the Air Forces level. He could take one day to determine that or he could take one year. So I am in a limbo. I can't even take a lease for an apartment because I don't know how long I will be here.
And could you be sent off to Afghanistan in this limbo state?