News » Cover Feature

Do Ask, Do Tell

A local Marine pushed for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal — and finally won.



You might recognize Tim Smith's face.

Back in October 2009, Smith's image — clad in his decorated Marine-issue uniform with his right hand in a salute — graced a billboard on Poplar Avenue downtown, bearing the words, "I'm gay and I protected your freedom."

Less than a week later, vandals had ripped down the billboard, and though the culprits were never apprehended, the story made national headlines. The billboard was one of five featuring prominent gay or gay-friendly Memphians installed around town by the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center for National Coming Out Day. Smith's was the only one that was vandalized.

"It felt like a punch in the gut when the billboard was torn down. I was absolutely sick to my stomach with frustration and anger," said the 28-year-old former Marine logistician who, years after being booted from the Marines under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, still sports his military buzz-cut.

"And then the community realized that we had to respond in a positive way. We couldn't give somebody the satisfaction of thinking this was an action we would take lying down," he said.

The event galvanized the local gay community, leading to unity rallies and a fight for equal rights locally. That philosophy of turning something negative into something positive comes naturally to Smith.

He took the same attitude when he was kicked out of the Marines for being gay in August 2005.

"I decided, from that point on, that I would fight Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the flipside," Smith said. "I swore to myself when I was discharged that I would fight until the day it was over."

Smith joined the "Call to Duty" tour in the spring of 2006, a cross-country college tour promoting Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal. He did radio interviews, and he was featured in The New York Times.

Last December, Smith's work — and the work of so many other equal-rights advocates — paid off when President Barack Obama signed a bill repealing the 17-year-old Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

"Clearly, this is President Obama's Lyndon Johnson moment in history," said Aubrey Sarvis, Army veteran and executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in a statement last December. "A measure of dignity has been restored to thousands of service members on active duty and to over a million gay veterans who served in silence."

But it's not safe yet for gay service members to come out. First, each branch of the armed services must complete member training around how repeal will work. Training in the Navy, Air Force, and Marines should be complete by the end of June, and the Army plans to wrap up by August. After all branches complete training, it will be another 60 days before repeal is official.

A Born Marine

Growing up in Falkner, Mississippi, Smith knew from an early age that he wanted to serve in the armed forces. Some of his family members had military backgrounds, and he planned to follow in their footsteps.

"My parents made me wait until I was able to sign for myself. They supported it, but they wanted it to be my decision," Smith said. "I chose the Marines because, if I was going to serve, I wanted to serve in the best."

Smith joined the Marines in 2001, when he was 18 years old, eight years after former President Bill Clinton signed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy into law. That policy mandated the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members. More than 14,000 people have been booted out for being gay since the measure was passed in 1993.

But at the time he joined the Marines, Smith didn't think that policy would affect him.

"I knew I wasn't completely heterosexual, but based on my religious upbringing and where I came from in the woods of Mississippi, I figured [my same-sex attraction] was a phase that would pass," Smith said.

He graduated boot camp in August 2001, after a year at Northeast Mississippi Community College. He was stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina, and was soon after deployed to Spain and then the Middle East.

"I loved the Marines," Smith said. "I liked the physical aspect and camaraderie. You get the opportunity to see a lot of interesting places on Uncle Sam's dime. You get job skills. It's pretty much a win-win."

Although Smith began to question his sexuality in college and during Marine training, he tried to deny his same-sex attraction by marrying his high school sweetheart. The marriage only lasted a year before Smith realized it wasn't meant to be. The couple divorced, and Smith confided to a few friends about his homosexual feelings.

Smith began to feel like he was leading a double life. It was okay to talk with friends about being gay, but he had to remain in the closet at work.

"You had to see through the green to get to the rainbow," Smith said. "Everybody knew certain clubs far away from base where you could go. There was a hidden network underneath the surface."

Having friends in the large gay communities of nearby Atlanta and Charleston gave Smith some solace, and he would often make the drives to those cities to hang out with likeminded people. He eventually met a partner, another Marine who was stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina.

But one can only hide for so long. Turns out, Smith's command staff had known his secret for some time, but they'd chosen not to speak up.

"They knew I was coming up for a promotion and that it wouldn't affect my work. They didn't have a huge problem with it," Smith said. "But their hand was forced by an outside party, and that's when the house fell down."

The Outing

That house was blown over by gossiping parishioners at Smith's former church, the one he and his ex-wife had attended when they were still married. The head of the Marine chaplain corps where Smith was stationed had retired and taken the pastor position at that church.

"I had gone to that church for about a year, but I didn't feel like it was a safe place after [my divorce]," Smith said. "Obviously, people knew what happened, and congregants told the pastor. Then he confronted me about it."

The pastor offered Smith a deal: Attend an ex-gay ministry and try to seek reconciliation with his ex-wife or the pastor would see that Smith was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Smith, who was just becoming comfortable with his homosexuality, refused to go into ex-gay therapy.

"When I refused to go to the change ministry, [the pastor] turned what he knew over to the command staff and pushed their hand on it," Smith said. "He was high enough in rank when he was in [service], and he was well-connected. [The command staff's] hands were pretty much tied. He told them if they didn't take care of it, he would."

Smith was given the option of a guaranteed honorable discharge or taking his chances with an official Don't Ask, Don't Tell investigation, meaning authorities would seek proof from photos or witnesses that Smith had engaged in what the military calls "homosexual conduct."

According to the policy, that includes 1) a statement that one is gay, 2) a homosexual act, attempted act, or solicitation of an act, or 3) a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same sex. A "homosexual act" can be something as simple as holding hands in a public park, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

"I knew all it would take would be them turning over a couple of stones to see that I was very active in the gay community in Atlanta and Charleston," Smith said.

So Smith admitted that he was gay, taking the honorable discharge route. After his discharge, Smith's partner also came out and was immediately discharged. The two are still friends, but they ended their relationship shortly after their discharges.

Smith moved to Memphis to study education at the University of Memphis, and he joined the "Call to Duty" tour to fight for Don't Ask, Don't Tell reform. He appeared on the National Coming Out Day billboard, becoming something of a local celebrity in the Memphis gay community.

But Smith will soon be leaving the Bluff City to take a teaching job in Indianapolis with Teach for America. He wants to join the National Guard or Army Reserve when he's legally able to do so.

"I've started another phase of my life, but I definitely feel like the military is still a part of me. I want to continue in service," Smith said. "In a couple of years, if I've accomplished some of the goals I'm pursuing, I'll most certainly go back."

So long as members were discharged solely for violation of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, they may rejoin once repeal is official. A spokesperson with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network predicts that repeal will go into effect by the end of October.

Changing Times

When Clinton signed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy into law in 1993, it was seen as a compromise to appease both gay-rights advocates and those who believed the military should continue to ban homosexuals from service. Pre-1993, there was an outright ban on gays in the military, but Don't Ask, Don't Tell prohibited investigations into members' sexuality without suspicion.

According to a Time magazine article on treatment of gays in military history, the Army, Navy, and Selective Service system during World War II developed methods for screening out gay men that included looking for feminine characteristics and dress or an expanded rectum. More than 4,000 gay men had been rejected for service by the end of World War II.

As recently as 1982, the Department of Defense issued a directive stating that homosexuality was clearly incompatible with military service. That was just one year before Memphian Sean Alexander joined the Army.

Like Smith, Alexander, who has served as a co-chair of Mid-South Pride in recent years, didn't know he gay when he enlisted. He was only 19 in 1983, and he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a retired Army major who served in World War II.

"He went down to the station the day they swore me in. It really swelled my heart with pride," Alexander said.

But Alexander began to discover his sexual orientation while he was serving. He got the first clue from a fellow officer.

"My first duty station after basic training was in Germany, and there was a young lady in our unit who was obviously tomboyish," Alexander said. "We got together one night at the enlisted's club, and she pulled me over to protect her from the other guys who were interested in her. She told me she and I had something in common and that I probably didn't even know it. I didn't know what she was talking about, but later, that statement rang very true."

Alexander's fellow officer was hinting that he was gay, and though he didn't fully figure that out until leaving the Army for the Reserve in 1986, he didn't dare confess his same-sex attraction to other officers.

"I think the people in my unit might have been okay with it, but once it got higher in the ranks, they probably would have asked me to leave the military," Alexander said.

When serving at his last duty station before leaving the Army, Alexander went out with a friend from the barracks. They went to a concert and ended up club-hopping afterward.

"We ended up at a gay bar, and I would see two guys in one corner or two girls in another corner," Alexander said. "I'm sure us GI's stood out like a sore thumb, but I felt more comfortable, like these were my people. I didn't know why, but I felt more like the club kids than the military guys."

Alexander thinks Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal will be a smooth transition for modern service members.

"With the younger generation being more open-minded, it will be easy," he said.

Smith agrees, in part, because the military instills a sense of professionalism and because members are trained to follow whatever orders they're given. He said some older or very conservative members may struggle with repeal, but he thinks this could be a teaching moment.

"This could be just like racial integration," Smith said. "I know so many people, even in the modern military, who grew up in rural Alabama or Mississippi, and they didn't have any interaction with people of other ethnicities or races or religions. And now they have."

Critics of Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal have argued that allowing gay members to serve openly could damage unit cohesion. However, a Pentagon survey of 115,000 service members and 44,266 spouses released in November found that 92 percent said they could work with gay and lesbian service members.

"This won't hurt unit morale," Smith said. "It will help unit morale because people can be honest with themselves. And honesty increases harmony."

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment