Sgt. Brandy Stewart knew what she was getting into when she enlisted in the Oklahoma Army National Guard in 2003. Like most soldiers, she enlisted because she felt a calling to serve her country, to preserve and continue the freedom earned by America's servicemen and women.
"I really do believe in duty, honor, country," Stewart said, "and what the essence of our independence as Americans means. I always bought into the wearing of the uniform and the camaraderie."
Stewart chose the Army National Guard because, she said, it's the only military branch to serve a dual role--a state and a federal mission. She liked that, in addition to serving in times of war and conflict, the Guard is also called up in times of natural disaster.
As a lesbian, Stewart had no qualms about the affect her sexuality might have on her service as a soldier. The military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, introduced in 1993, prohibits anyone who "demonstrate(s) a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" from serving in the armed forces, because it "would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability."
The policy also prevents anyone who is homosexual or bisexual from revealing his or her sexual identity while serving in the armed forces. Likewise, servicemen and women knowing of another's homosexuality are prevented from disclosing that information or investigating its legitimacy, as long as it remains hidden by the person in question.
"Protecting America's freedom trumped my own identity," said Stewart. "The military's values, especially the Army's values, match my own."
And she thought because she was working for what she believed to be the greater good, hiding her identity would be easy. And, if she couldn't hide it, it would only provide another opportunity for her to make a difference. She had endured discrimination in college and had been able to, person by person, change perceptions of homosexuality of those around her.
And, for a number of years, her sexuality never came into question. When it did, it was the result, Stewart said, of her "rubbing someone the wrong way." A personal matter caused rift between Stewart and a higher up, and, after that, she said, the threats started rolling in from fellow soldiers and direct leaders.
"They were always really subtle," Stewart said. "[People would say] I'd better not bring my sexual orientation near them or they would 'make the call.'"
Meaning, Stewart explained, that if someone felt threatened by her sexuality, he was prepared to out her to the colonel, which violates DADT policy. She said she knew of people who walked into her colonel's office and said, "Did you know Stewart's gay?" But, as long as her performance as a soldier remained outstanding, her colonel ignored the accusations.
Another incident occurred when Stewart said she received a phone call from a friend, whom she believed to be a reliable source, stating that her new boss's mission (she had transferred after the last incident from her base in Broken Arrow to one in Sand Springs) was to either get her kicked out of the military or to make her so miserable that she resigned. His goal, she was told, was to "finish the job her former boss started."
The military has in place anti-harassment policies meant to protect people from being sexually or otherwise harassed, and those who are being harassed are encouraged to come forth. The military is obligated to investigate any charge of harassment brought forth, but the problem for Stewart was that an investigation into her alleged harassment would also mean an investigation into her sexuality.
"I was done," Stewart said. "When I was willing to give so much of myself, to have that undervalued by a [possible] firing, not based on my performance but on my sexual orientation, it was disenchanting, to say the least."
That's when Stewart decided to fight. She made the decision to come out of the closet and, by doing so, to challenge DADT.
"Before that, I always thought, it's not my fight," Stewart explained. "My fight is that I'm making a difference one person at a time by staying in and protecting other soldiers like myself. Then, I realized, how can I protect them if I don't stand up for them? I can only say 'It'll be okay' so much."
She got in touch with Mana Tahie of the Oklahomans for Equality, the local advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender peoples housed at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, 621 E. 4th St., and told her she was ready to come out, and she wanted to make as big a public scene as possible.
Because of the military's DADT policy, Stewart will likely be discharged for her revelation, and her character of service will be determined by the manner in which she comes out. Though she probably won't be served with a dishonorable discharge, she could very well receive a general other than honorable discharge, which means she could very well lose many of the VA benefits soldiers discharged honorably automatically receive, simply because of her sexual orientation.
But Stewart isn't necessarily ready to accept that as a consequence of coming out. Once she makes her public statement, she will go before the Army's Administration Separation Board, where she will have access to a jacket attorney and the opportunity to plead her case for an honorable discharge in a setting similar to a civilian court.
There's a small chance the Army won't discharge her at all since it's struggling now to recruit and keep soldiers. Stewart's eight-year contract with the Army doesn't expire until 2011, and, although she's not been abroad yet, the chance that she could see foreign soil if she stays in the military is a very good one. And Stewart said she'd be happy with that.
"I'd love to stay in," she said, "if I could be open. I would make it a career."
And she believes the military is hurt by its DADT policy, which, as a recruiter, she'd seen deter dozens of National Guard candidates in the past three years.
On Thursday, April 3, Stewart will speak about her service under the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy at 7pm at the University of Tulsa's Lorton Hall, room 207. A representative from OkEq will speak about the policy itself as well as urging the public to support the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246), which would repeal DADT and replace it with a non-discrimination policy toward homosexual service in the military.
Stewart and others who believe DADT is hindering the readiness of America's military by deterring enlistment and removing otherwise productive servicemen and women for no reason other than their sexuality believe that the MREA would boost soldiers' morale and enlistment and make for a more productive military.
And, she believes soldiers are ready for the change in policy. One leader under whom she served in Broken Arrow and who has since retired is a four-war veteran who's served in the military half his life. And when she went to him for support in the harassment she was facing, she said she received nothing but positive guidance and support.
"If he's ready for it, I think the military's ready for it," she said.
And, she added, she thinks service members should be given credit for their professionalism. They've been able to accommodate and accept all kinds of people into their numbers--the biggest and, at the time, most controversial examples of those being African Americans and women--and she thinks they will have no problem accepting homosexuals into their ranks, as long as policy allows it.
"I really do believe in what the country is founded on," said Stewart. "I believe we have to preserve some things to keep the country strong and change others. I believe in freedom for all. It's pretty much a universal truth that everyone should be free and equal."
Share this article: