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Coming Out When You’re in the Military


The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell legislation in 2011 made it easier for lesbian and gay military members to serve openly. More recently, a Supreme Court decision allows the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages and offer benefits to the same-sex spouses of military members. But, if you're a lesbian or gay service member, you may have questions about serving openly in the military. The following information may help to address some of your concerns about coming out.

How these changes affects service members

The biggest change the repeal of DADT has brought is the opportunity for lesbian and gay service members to serve in the military without fear of being discharged. Service members no longer have to keep their sexual orientation a secret, which means they can talk about their sexual orientation, bring their same-sex partner to guest-attended military events or marry in states where same-sex marriage or civil unions are legal.

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn section three of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 allows the military services to recognize same-sex marriage and offer spouse and family benefits. To take advantage of those benefits, the service member and spouse must provide a valid marriage certificate from a jurisdiction where same-sex marriages are legal.

Serving openly in the military

Because there is no military requirement to declare your sexual orientation, your decision to serve as an openly gay service member is an entirely personal one. But, even for civilians, coming out can be a difficult decision. You may be concerned about how family and friends will react or even how co-workers will feel about you after the disclosure. Others worry about harassment and discrimination. Despite significant changes in military policy, it's not unusual for lesbian and gay service members to feel apprehensive about coming out.

As a service member, only you should choose whether you would like to come out and to whom. Whatever you decide to do, you should not feel pressured by anyone else to come out. Many lesbian or gay service members choose to go public because hiding their sexual orientation can be very difficult and isolating and because they want to be open and honest with family and friends. Still, others choose not to disclose their sexual orientation for many different personal reasons. The choice to disclose or not to disclose should be respected.

Keep in mind that military standards of conduct will continue to apply to all service members, regardless of sexual orientation. These include standards of conduct related to public displays of affection, dress, appearance and fraternization. For the Department of Defense, sexual orientation is considered a personal matter. Enforcement of these standards of conduct will apply to all service members in a neutral way.

Special circumstances

Making the decision to serve openly may be complicated. Like many service members, you may have concerns about how coming out will affect your military service and opportunities. The following areas of special interest may help answer some of your questions:

  • Security clearances. If you reveal information about your sexual orientation in a security clearance interview, the information cannot be the basis, by itself, for disqualification. The information should be kept private unless it is relevant to security concerns.
  • Overseas assignments. You cannot be restricted from an overseas assignment due to your sexual orientation. However host-country laws may restrict homosexual conduct. Service members will be informed about those laws, along with other host-country information, during pre-deployment briefings.
  • Social networking. Whether or not you decide to come out to family, friends or your unit, keep in mind that social media profiles and posts may not be private. Standards of conduct for social networking sites apply to all service members, regardless of sexual orientation. Keep in mind that if you use a government computer, the network may be monitored and your online posts may be tracked.

Dealing with discrimination

All service members should expect to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their sexual orientation. The military services are committed to promoting an environment free from discrimination, harassment and abuse. If you are a lesbian or gay service member and feel you have been a target for harassment or abuse, you may file a complaint through your chain of command or through your service's Equal Opportunity office.

Where to turn for help

There may be times when you feel overwhelmed and need to reach out for help. Military support services can provide solace and help for service members who are struggling. These services include:

  • Military OneSource. Consultants can refer service members for non-medical counseling services in their local community, by telephone or through an online chat. These counselors can help you consider the many factors that come into play when deciding whether and when to come out and can offer information and resources to support your decision. Visit Military OneSource online or call 800-342-9647.
  • Chaplains. Chaplains can offer a safe space and a confidential resource. Most military units, ships and installations have chaplains available to support service members.
  • Health care providers. A health care provider at your military treatment facility may be able to offer help or refer you to someone who can.

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July 17, 2014
Professionals Working with LGBT Military Families
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