I Was Wrong About Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Getting Fired, Giving Some Interviews, Taking Action

Before Occupy and all its myriad (and at times catastrophic) effects on my life, I was a one-trick pony of sorts. My focus in activism was a narrow one, born from personal experience and thrust onto the national stage.

In 2004, after one tour in Iraq and staring another one in the face, I made a decision to come out of the closet. I marched into my Commanding Officer’s office and delivered a carefully prepared statement (already vetted by a lawyer) to his desk declaring: “I will return to serve in Iraq but I will do so as an openly gay soldier.” Surprise (not really)! Ian is gay.

Predictably, I did not return to Iraq. I got drummed under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and since my job was a mission-critical position (Arabic translator) it instantly became news.

After making the rounds in the Advocate, Instinct Magazine, Anderson Cooper and others, I got tired of refuting John McCain’s asinine comments about the dangers of perverts in the Armed Forces and retired from activism for a few years in order to do things like be 22, do massive amounts of drugs, and catch HIV. Let’s admit it. Talking to reporters is boring and the people who were excited to get my story in the public eye felt that the end-all and be-all of activism was press statements. Spending thousands on cocaine seemed a lot more fun.

Finally, in my late 20s, a certain troublemaker named Dan Choi popped up and I snapped out of my self-obsessed desire to destroy myself and realized that activism didn’t necessarily end at giving interviews to Wolf Blitzer. It could be about chaining yourself to things. It could be getting arrested! It could be exciting.

So then this happened:

On November 15th, 2010, I handcuffed myself with Dan Choi and 11 other friends to the White House fence in protest of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A month later, it was repealed.

While that landmark legislation was the result of years of hard work on the part of legislators, advocates, and other pissed off people, I like to think that my participation in that protest brought enough focus on the issue that it was thrust into the limelight and acted on quickly. For a couple years, I have been proud of the fact that the direct action that put my face in Newsweek might have changed the country for the better.

Here’s the thing: I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.

I. Hate. Being. Wrong.

Before you write me off as crazy, hear me out.

It’s not getting arrested for a cause that I object to. Since I was very young my elders had impressed upon me that if I felt strongly enough about something, I should be willing to go to jail in order to bring about the change I wanted to see. That’s not the problem.

The problem also isn’t that LGBs are now free to join the military and be honest about who they are. That’s great! Playing the “pronoun” game and fearing getting fired on the basis of your sexual orientation is stressful and tiresome. I see this picture:

… and it pleases me! When I came home from Iraq, my mother and a boy I was dating were waiting for me when I got off the plane. I hugged my mom and awkwardly shook the hand of my “friend.” If I had been able to do what the gents above could do… that would be awesome!

So what’s the problem?

The problem isn’t that gay soldiers are now free to be as gay as they want in the military. The problem is that gay soldiers are now joining the military without hesitation. I helped to make that happen. I encouraged people to support the military industrial complex, an industry so large and so profitable that wars are seemingly now fought in order to award high-yield contracts to weapons manufacturers and private security operations like Blackwater.

I. Was. Wrong.

Who Did I Help?

When I handcuffed myself to that fence, it seemed clear who I was helping. LGBs in the military! Cut and dry! Freedom to serve their country! Sounds great, right? What I didn’t consider was who I was harming. I had no thought that the cause I was supporting was the wrong one.

Everyone knows that the military is a huge resource drain. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually supporting this vast war machine which gets used for corrupt and imperialistic purposes (any surprise we have the most expensive military… and are also the richest country on Earth? Hmmmm…). The most recent and glaring example may be the war in Iraq, which was started on false pretenses and seemed to benefit no-one other than defense contractors and the politicians who hired them. You know. The war I was in.

I went to Iraq thinking I was going to be helping people form a better democracy. Instead, in the aftermath of our military action and the instability the invasion brought to Iraq, thousands were killed in a violent insurgency and a war that seemed to last forever suddenly became very murky. After a while, the only people who really understood why they were there were the military contractors (to make a buck), and I understood that what I did there didn’t help many people.

Ask the LGBT population of Iraq. Since our military action and the instability it brought, openly gay Iraqis have been slain in droves.

You can imagine how that made me feel. I still never know how I forgot how upset this made me when I leaped at the chance to chain myself to the fence.

Goodbye, Friend. Stay Safe. Stay Sane.

Since I left the military I have struggled with mental issues. A classic sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I have terrible nightmares, am frightened by loud noises, and am plagued with panic attacks when reliving the details of my time in Iraq. Those profound months that I spent invading a foreign country had affected me in ways that it took me years to understand.

Last fall a friend bought me a US Army pin. I immediately affixed it to my coat and wore it for months.

Some have mistaken my purpose for wearing it, and I didn’t understand myself at the time. The circles I run in don’t exactly love the military. I’m surrounded by people who have been pressured to join because it was the only way they could get college money (ha, that was totally me), people of color who have seen their friends and family members enlist only to be sent to go kill other people of color, peaceniks, and people with the empathy to realize there is no such thing as “the Enemy.” People have taken my wearing of the pin to symbolize that I supported the Army, which baffled me. When I put it on, I didn’t feel proud. I felt regret, something I couldn’t admit to myself at the time.

You see, I killed people while I was in Iraq. Well. I’m almost certain I did. I fired an artillery piece. It blew up a building. If there were people in that building, I killed them. Me.

Why did I do that? I won’t go into it. You’re not my therapist. But when people see me wearing that pin, they don’t realize it’s not me proudly displaying my service: I’m admitting to something. I’m sort of like Hestor Prynn in that this pin is my scarlet letter and I’m admitting the sin of murder. Of imperialism. I’m admitting a mistake.

A friend of mine just joined the Army, active duty. He is a fey young thing, a little foolish but a good person. He is a member of the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and a self-identified gay man. Because of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he can consider signing away his life (figuratively, I certainly hope not literally) for four years without hesitation due to a discriminatory policy.

Will he have his own scarlet letter someday?

Getting Pepper Sprayed Is Better Than Supporting Imperialism. Trust Me On That.

In the end I don’t think that what I did on November 15th, 2010 was an act of prime evil. I know now that I look back and say “oops.” I know that I feel like I have honed my empathy and my political understanding to the point where I think more carefully about what I’m going to have to bear on my conscience later on.

Honestly, this is less about me, and less about my friend, and more about the fact that war, frankly, is wrong. War is waged so that the privileged elite can give the impoverished masses guns and then send them to kill other poor people because they’re pissed off at the privileged elite over there.

The reason I’m wrong isn’t because gay people shouldn’t join the Army. It’s because no-one should join the Army. No-one should go kill people so that Blackwater can line its pockets.

Will we ever exist without war? I… well, probably not in my lifetime. It’s something to work toward. We need to start thinking, as a society and as a human race, not about how to kill each other better or more fairly but how to prevent each other from killing each other at all.

One year to the day after my arrest in Washington DC, I marched with Occupy Seattle. I don’t even remember what the march was about, but we took to the streets and the police responded by pepper spraying us. One of the people hit that day was Dorli Rainey, the 84-year old woman whose face then circled the globe as evidence of police brutality.

I was pepper sprayed that day too. I am far more proud of that.

22 Responses to “I Was Wrong About Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
  1. rainbowumbrella says:

    What a humbling post. You can also be proud that you are somebody (and one of the few!) that can admit when they are wrong! I loved this piece.

  2. Josh K says:

    Excellent Piece. Through it I can feel your anger, shame, and pride. I have been lucky enough to stand by you through some of Occupy Seattles events and I am proud to know you. Thank you for everything you have done, and are yet to accomplish!

  3. Ansel says:

    Great piece, Ian.

  4. Todd Boyle says:

    Something you can do: support Washington Truth in Recruiting. We have done work in and around high schools since 2003, but in recent years our main activity is paying the registration fees and bringing teams of people into the annual conferences of the associations of Principals, school board Directors, and PTAs, counselors, and other groups. We erect displays alongside all the vendors (and several military recruiting or ASVAB displays) and hand out counter recruiting materials to every school board director, teacher, principal etc. who will listen! This costs dough, please give some! and join and volunteer.

  5. Athena says:

    We teach our children that violence solves nothing, and the power we all have is in our beliefs, our thoughts, and the strength of words to change the world like the great people before us who did just that. For example I once had a conversation with my now 10 yr old cousin about “if he could bring dinosaurs back to life” and what would happen if people were opposed to his plan, his first response was “I would just shoot them” but after a few moments he came to realize that you can’t shoot everyone or it would not matter anymore if he was right and that he could keep people safe cause they would all be dead, and that the only really effective method would be to convince people through his words and intelligence that he was correct. You are a great example of someone who understands the power of words and tries to use the powers for good. Thank you Ian!

    Not that it matters but the Occupy Seattle March was to show support towards Oakland I do believe.

  6. kenneth says:

    it is time for gay people to stop fighting the war of assimilattion and start becoming the natural leaders of society they are intended to be.

    ending don’t ask don’t tell and marriage equality are just two examples of a false “gay forward” agenda.
    don’t ask, don’t tell because (as your essay beautifully points out), war kills people. marriage equality because it turns half of the (unmarried) population into handmaidens for one particular lifestyle choice, falsley elevating married coupling to the highest pinnacle of social status – while ignoring the other countless ways people can love and live together.

    in both examples, it is obvious inequality being disguised as a struggle for equality. its an inverted social struggle.

    lastly, one of my proudest moments as a veteran was in november of 1999, marching in my combat boots – the same pair of boots i wore in the active-duty military just a few months before – in the streets of seattle during the WTO protests. while being tear gassed and shot at with rubber bulletts, in my heart i knew that i had come home to myself.
    now that’s gay liberation!


  7. Excellent piece, Ian!

  8. Ganymede says:

    Thank you Ian for sharing your profound experiences so eloquently and concisely. Well done!

  9. Katy Zatsick says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience in and out of the military.
    Thank you for speaking your truth to power.
    I am going to share this on FB and with my friends.

  10. Gene Marx says:


    Thank you. I have long felt that the repeal of DADT would prime the pump of recruiment and the MIC cash cow. I’m a member of Veterans For Peace, an organization that in the long view wants the US to get to a point where there will be fewer and fewer veterans, not more and more innocent victims. Your insight is critical to the peace movement.

    Thank you, and join us – http://www.veteransforpeace.org.

    Gene Marx
    Bellingham, WA
    Secretary, VFP National Board of Directors

  11. “Getting Pepper Sprayed Is Better Than Supporting Imperialism. Trust Me On That.”

    Love it — thank you!

  12. Marisa says:

    Wow. A very smart article. A friend linked me to this on Facebook and I’m going to bookmark it. I’m an ally, and I remember that I started out kind of thinking the same thing, “Why would we want to expand who gets to go and kill people or who could be drafted?”…but kind of figured you have to empower people to make the choices they want to make, whether you disagree with them or not, and that I should trust people to know whether joining up was best for them. Now, though, this is making me wonder why, of all the rights LGBT people and their allies try to fight for, is this among them? Why is this considered a “right”, not a burden? I think it says something about our society that full and equal status includes, in our minds, fighting wars, and that that’s seen as something to work towards. How odd!

    Thanks for making me think a little harder about the subject, and best of luck in whatever you do.

  13. Jonathan says:

    We all have a long & winding road to our acceptance of ourselves and the realization of the system we live under. It’s always a drag to find out we’ve been lied to all along. But better to find out later, stop brutalizing ourselves for it and do something positive with our lives.
    be well,

  14. Tom Oakley says:

    Great article.

    Repealing DADT is great for gays already in the military – they don’t have to be secretive about it anymore. Well, they still might be secretive for social reasons, but being open is not going to directly cost them their job.

    But does the harm outweigh the good? Interesting.

  15. elliot says:

    hey ian, this is a really amazing post. what’s your policy on reblogging (with links and due credit, of course)? i’d love to share this on my site

  16. Ferny Reyes says:

    I largely disagree and it’s mostly because I think you’ve mixed up the casuality of the intersectionality. The act of gay people being in the military does very little to the two things you have the biggest problem dealing with in the military: wars of imperialism and the barebones fact that there is one.

    Now, given that, I think you could still argue that having a counter-cultural practice like homosexuality give credence to a fundamentally evil institution is problematic, but it still seems like a small cost (because I don’t think we want to live in a world in which homosexuality is only counter-cultural) compared to the reality of a world in which war and ‘military pride’ exists and in which the non-existance of gays in these institutions actively marginalizes them in other spheres, when they have no ability to stop the two bad institutions from existing.

    Long story short: I think if you want to argue this from a perspective of conscience and that you shouldn’t, in any capacity, actively support evil institutions, that’s a fair personal critique, but it still seems to fail the wider political and philosophical context of why support for DADT repeal was a good thing, as well as the ways in which getting that repealed created meaningful institutional capacity that could be harnessed in the gay community.

  17. Otto says:

    I really like this peice. It is honest and it says a lot. Thanks for writing it.

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