On the 11th Anniversary of the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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Abby Sonnier

“Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the truth is known. They do not lie,” the Honor Code states.

But Nate Sawyer (SAIS ‘23) was, by necessity, “lying all the time” and he hated it. 

As the son, grandson, nephew, cousin, and brother of military service members, Sawyer knew he wanted to go into the military when he graduated high school. He started at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2008, even knowing the challenges he would face as a gay man under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” 

In 2011, President Barack Obama repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” while Sawyer was still at the Naval Academy, but culture doesn’t change overnight. He was still afraid coming out would impact his career. 

After the Academy, Sawyer went on to flight school, naturally a stressful environment even without the added stress of constantly keeping a mask on. The pressure of both the training and fighting to stay in the closet was enough to almost fail out of training. In 2014, Sawyer knew something had to change and he came out. 

“I was done lying,” Sawyer said.

In reflecting on his career thus far, Sawyer said that being in the closet was holding him back. 

“I definitely could have done better in my job if I was out – and that has happened since coming out,” Sawyer said. 

Now, he is at the top of his peer group, he was promoted a year early, and has held prestigious positions in the Navy. 

“I don’t feel any limits anymore,” he said.

Sawyer is a Lieutenant Commander (O-4) and strives to use his standing as a beacon for younger LGBTQ+ members of the Navy. He knows that the Navy has lost talent in people who quit because they came out or were outed and knows that those in power have to ensure that stops and that the Navy is a safe place for those individuals.

Sawyer’s experience is not particularly unique but serves as an important reminder of what LGBTQ+ activists are fighting to prevent. 

The Supreme Court held that the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex applied to LGBTQ+ individuals in 2020, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015, the military’s ban on sodomy was repealed in 2013, and the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy ended in 2010.

When I came out in 2019 while in Air Force ROTC at a large southern state university, no one treated me differently or made any derogatory comments. As a member of Gen Z, it’s difficult to keep in mind just how recent these changes were. Living in the bubble of the DC metropolitan area often makes it even harder to realize just how precarious our status is in this country, but our rights are at great risk and we can’t afford to take them for granted.

Unfortunately, some are working tirelessly to undo these milestones. Justice Samuel Alito cited Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, specifically in the overturning of Roe v. Wade—legalizing abortion— in the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Whole Women’s Health in June. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia decided by the Supreme Court in 2021 allows for the explicit discrimination against same-sex couples in determining adopting qualifications. Donald Trump banned transgender people from serving in the military in 2019. 

On this anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” we have to remember the recent past and continue working hard to make sure it doesn’t become our future. These events aren’t relics of a time gone by. They are a clear and present danger to us now.

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