Serving In The Military Before 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Was Repealed: A Very Veterans Day Story

Nov 7, 2018 at 10:46 am
Veterans Day

Editor's Note: This story originally ran in LEO's 2018 Veteran's Day Issue.

Janet Holliday is gay, but she married and divorced men twice, just to make sure she could continue to serve in her first love, the U.S. Army.

Ginger Wallace is gay, served in the Air Force and also dated men, “just so people wouldn’t think anything, which was very unfair to them,” she said.

The Louisville residents married each other three years ago, three years after the ““Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”” policy was repealed.

But when they entered the military, it completely banned gay people serving. Those signing up for service were required to check a box that not only affirmed they do not advocate the overthrow of the government, but also that they were not — and never had been — a “homosexual.” Service members lived with the possibility that an accusation or even a rumor could lead to an investigation and their discharge with an “other than honorable” characterization of service. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the policy of the Clinton administration on Feb. 28, 1994, gay people were ostensibly allowed to serve, but it was against regulations to ask anyone about their sexuality or for anyone to admit to being gay. Admitting you are gay meant discharge.

During the next 17 years, until the policy was repealed, Holliday and Wallace had to make many difficult, personal compromises. The professional compromises, however, may have hurt the most, they said.

Wallace is a retired colonel, and Holliday is still active duty as a colonel until the date of her retirement in December.

For LEO’s Veterans Day Issue, we asked them to interview each other, to tell the story of their service, 60 years between them. It spanned the evolution of the military’s total ban on “homosexual” service, to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and to, finally, full and open service. (And for a brief history of LGBTQ people and the military, read this sidebar).

Janet: Tell me how the pride of Trigg County High School and a member of the Kentucky-Indiana All Star Basketball Team ended up at the Air Force Academy?

Ginger: Well, when I was in sixth grade, our family took a trip out to Colorado, and we visited the Academy. If I took you there today (she has), I can show you the exact spot where I stood and said, ‘This is where I want to go to school.’ I just knew I wanted to serve my country. I was lucky enough to get an appointment and a spot on the basketball team where I was a two-year starter and a captain my senior year.

How did a small-town girl from Great Bend, Kansas end up in the Army?

Janet: I was working as a television reporter in Topeka after graduating from college, and I was so bored covering school board meetings and threshing contests. I wanted travel and adventure. I did my senior thesis on American Forces Broadcasting, so I auditioned for a spot and passed. The Army was the only service that would guarantee me a job as a broadcaster, so I went to basic training, Defense Information School, and ended up at my first duty station in Athens, Greece working on the radio. I got travel and adventure right off the bat!

So, Ginger, you were commissioned in 1990, before women could serve in all military specialties or any combat roles. Tell me about your early assignments in the Air Force and how you eventually came to be an Intelligence Officer?

Ginger: My first assignment was a C-130 unit at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas where I was a mission planner and crew scheduler. I was the first female officer in that unit, in fact. In 1993, I deployed to Somalia a month after the events portrayed in ‘Blackhawk Down,’ assisting with resupply runs for the ground forces. The Air Force decided to do away with my career field in 1997, and I had to pick a new one. I knew I wanted to stay close to flying operations, so I decided to ask for Intelligence. In my first assignment as a new intelligence officer, I led targeting operations during Operation Allied Force, which was the NATO operation in the former Yugoslavia.

You’ve worked in several different career fields during your 30 years so what were those like?

Janet Holliday and Ginger Wallace.  |  Photo by Kathryn Harrington - Kathryn Harrington
Kathryn Harrington
Janet Holliday and Ginger Wallace. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington

Janet: My enlisted time was all radio and television work in Greece and Germany. I commissioned into the Signal Corps in 1992 and went back to Germany as a tactical switch platoon leader. We had these huge, message switch units that required four trucks and two generators to operate and passed the classified Air Tasking Orders for Operation Deny Flight, which enforced the no-fly zone over Bosnia. I really hated the Signal Corps — I had a revelation one night in the freezing cold in Germany that I honestly didn’t care if we got the field telephones working again or not, and I requested a transfer to the Adjutant General Corps, the Human Resources branch of the Army. I worked in and around that field for 23 years.

Talk more about being a woman in a male-dominated profession. Were there times you felt discriminated against or that being a woman gave you an advantage?

Ginger: Before I deployed to Mogadishu, (Somalia), my commander asked me at least five times if I was ‘sure’ I wanted to go, because it was dangerous. I finally told him to stop asking me, because if I had been a man, he never would have asked me that. That is the only time I really felt I was being treated differently because I was a woman. We all tried hard to fit into the macho culture and sometimes didn’t speak up when we should have. For example, I remember in my first unit inappropriate pictures on walls, having contests on the radio with the aircrew to see who could tell the raunchiest joke, etc. I did not realize I was contributing to a culture that condoned sexual harassment and opened the door for sexual assault, until many years later. The Department of Defense, or DoD, in general is trying to change that culture, and I remember telling my airmen years later that if they didn’t want to be me in 20 years, admitting they had enabled that type of behavior, they needed to start speaking up now. DoD has made a lot of progress but isn’t there yet.

Did you ever have any experiences like that?

Janet: Kind of. I think the hardest thing for me in those environments were the times I had soldiers come to me and tell me they were gay. I remember a young lady who was a trainee when I was a second lieutenant at Fort Gordon who came out to the chain of command, and we had no choice but to put her out of the military. The whole thing felt so hypocritical, because I knew the battalion commander was gay, too. The only way I lived with that is because I know she really wanted out of the Army. Later, when I was a commander, I had a soldier try to tell me he was gay, and I just put my hands over my ears and told him to tell it to someone else. That was my way of dealing with it — I wish I could have listened and been sympathetic and shared my story as well, but that would have meant the end of my career.

Sticking with that subject, did you know in your early years in the Air Force, or even when you applied to the Academy, that you were gay? How did that whole revelation come about?

Ginger: Did I know for sure? No. Did I suspect? Yes. But I didn’t have a relationship with a woman until college. At the Academy, and during my first few years in the military, I dated men and women. By the time I knew for sure, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in effect, so I started hiding my relationships with women, which was exhausting.

When did you know and how did it impact your early Army career?

Janet: I was forced out of the closet at age 18 by my crazy, ex-girlfriend’s mother, who found some love letters. So, I decided to own it — I joined the campus LGBT group, cut my hair, dressed androgynously, the whole nine yards. I felt safe enlisting because, at that time, in 1988, my closest group of friends was a bunch of lesbian helicopter mechanics from Fort Riley, Kansas. They told me if we were discreet, no one cared. Now, that being said, I was fully aware of the ‘no gays in the military’ policy, and I willfully chose to ignore that when I enlisted. I convinced myself it was OK because I was really bisexual (which was a lie I told myself) and that my desire to serve was more important than any policy designed to keep me from service. I also vowed to my college friends, who told me not to enlist, that I was going to change the policy from within and that was my crusade.  It turned out my gay military friends were right at that time. Fully one-third of my basic training company was gay. Girls joined on the ‘buddy plan’ with their girlfriends (you can imagine the drama when they broke up in basic). I didn’t have any issues until I was at my first duty station in Greece, and a friend stationed in Spain came to visit. Neither of us knew she was under investigation by the Office of Special Investigations. I was hauled in for an interrogation, accused of being a homosexual, threatened, you name it. I denied, since I wasn’t in a relationship at that time. In fact, I was married to a fellow (male) soldier, so if anyone asked me if I was gay, I could just say, ‘I’m married.’ That way, I didn’t have to lie. My security clearance was suspended for a while, but they didn’t have any proof.

Since you were hiding your relationships with women, did you have cover boyfriends or gay boys you passed off as boyfriends?

Ginger: I really didn’t. I had a pretty serious boyfriend during my first assignment at Little Rock. That obviously did not work out. Every now and then, if I wasn’t in a relationship, I would go on a date with a guy, just so people wouldn’t think anything, which was very unfair to them. I don’t remember ever having a cover boyfriend. I began a long-term relationship with a woman in 2001 that lasted for 12 years. No one knew about her. She never went to military functions, and I didn’t talk about her until after the repeal.

So, what happened with the security clearance and the husband?

Janet: I eventually got the clearance back and ditched the husband. By that time, I had commissioned as a second lieutenant and had a string of disastrous relationships with men, because I was way too scared to date women. I had worked too hard to get that commission and was now thinking of the military as a career. My mother’s advice was, ‘Maybe you just need to marry a nice guy.’ So, I married the agent that had investigated me the second time. He was a nice guy. I told him the truth. We stayed married for 17 years until DADT was repealed. I served 23 years not being able to be honest about who I was, and you served 21.

How do you think that affected you as a leader?

Ginger: I think, in hindsight, it limited my effectiveness as a leader. I commanded twice, once under DADT and once after repeal. I thought I was a pretty good commander, but my inability to be myself and to be authentic diminished my ability to lead effectively. I was a much better commander the second time when I could be real with people. It’s probably the same in the Army, but in the Air Force we say, ‘Know your airmen.’ You must know them to take care of them. I felt like my inability to allow them to know me impacted my ability to know them. I suspect you had some of the same experiences but that all changed with the repeal.

How did the repeal of DADT change your life?

Janet: The biggest impact was that I had to come out again. Once is hard enough, but doing it again, at the age of 45 to friends and colleagues I had known for years, was hard. Many of my Army friends were hurt, but I had to explain to them that if I had told them, it would have put them in the difficult position of having to turn me in if someone came snooping. I hadn’t even told my best friend of over 20 years. I lost a few friends, which surprised me but, for the most part, people just accepted it and moved on.

How did the repeal affect you?

Ginger: Well, at that point I was out to my family and a few close friends. And then, I was chosen to represent all gay and lesbian service members at the 2012 State of the Union and to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama. The Obama administration considered repeal a crowning achievement and he wanted to highlight that at the 2012 State of the Union address. I was outed on national television to the entire Air Force and to my little hometown in southwest Kentucky. For me, that made things easier because I didn’t have to come out to everyone individually. Everyone now knew! Should we talk now about how you used the State of the Union to stalk me?

Janet: No.

Ginger: Come on. It’s my turn to ask a question. How did you meet your wife?

Janet: Oh, all right. So, I was in the mess hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, and I saw this hot woman walk in. Since she was in civilian clothes, I couldn’t figure out who she was. Then, a Facebook friend told me to look up a friend of hers who was in Kabul, so I Googled the name ‘Ginger Wallace’ and, lo and behold, there was the famous lesbian from the State of the Union, working in the shipping container next to me and, coincidentally, living across the hall from me in the barracks. Not to change the subject, but let’s change the subject. Let’s talk more about your military career.

You’ve served all over the world, to include the deployment to Somalia as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you consider your most rewarding assignment?

Ginger: Probably my two commands, first of the 488th Intelligence Squadron at Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, and the 517th Training Group at the Presidio of Monterey where I was dual-hatted as the Deputy Commandant of the Defense Language Institute. With command comes enormous responsibility. It is very rewarding but sometimes means you must make tough decisions that impact people’s lives. I will say there’s nothing that can turn a bad day around faster than to spend time with your troops. I absolutely loved just hanging out and talking and learning from my folks. I sometimes wonder if the American people realize what a treasure they have in the young people who choose to serve them; they are smart, focused, fit and have a resiliency that is not to be believed. As a commander, you have people and you have a mission. You take care of the people and they take care of the mission. I miss the Air Force every now and then but what I really miss is the people.

You have also served all over the world to include Germany, Korea, Greece, Afghanistan... What was your most rewarding assignment?

Janet: I echo what you say about command. My assignments as Commander of Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania and the Marketing and Engagement Brigade at Fort Knox were amazing assignments where I felt I impacted the future of the Army. Plus, I was the first female commander of both those units, so that was kind of cool. But even more than that, my time teaching at the U.S. Military Academy was so rewarding. Some of the cadets I taught as plebes are now majors and lieutenant colonels, stepping into leadership roles. My most rewarding assignments have been those where I was able to ‘build the bench’ for the future of the Army.

So now that you’ve retired, what’s next?

Ginger: I want to continue to serve in some capacity, either in local government or nonprofit work. I absolutely loved being in the Air Force, and I’m looking for something just as meaningful for the next chapter. Right now, I’m volunteering with the Louisville Parks Foundation, and I’m co-chair of Metro Government’s Participatory Budgeting Initiative. I also occasionally do speaking engagements that concern diversity, because we have to stay vigilant. We’ve made so much progress in LGBT rights in the last 10 years, but we can’t take that for granted, especially under the current administration. Just look at what has happened to our transgender sisters and brothers in arms. We have transgender friends who are currently serving and live in constant fear of losing their careers. Not only that, but the current administration is attempting to erase the existence of transgender people altogether, which is an outrage.

Janet: And I’ll just chime in to wrap this up. We must fight as hard for transgender rights as we fought for gay rights. I’m proud to be a new (albeit, lowly adjunct) faculty member at the UofL, recognized as one of the most LGBT-friendly universities in the United States. I plan to be involved in the UofL LGBT Center and help my wife run for office. Having served our country for over 60 years, we both feel strongly it is now time to bring that spirit of service to our local community. •

ABCs of LGBTQ in the military

Gays and lesbians have served in the U.S. military since its inception but were only allowed to serve openly beginning in 2011 with the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

The military included homosexuality as a disqualifying psychiatric trait previous to World War II and court-martialed, imprisoned and discharged gay service members with a dishonorable characterization of service, Alan Berube wrote in his book, “Coming Out Under Fire.” As the military was building up in the 1940s, it switched to an administrative discharge commonly known as a Section 8.

Several times throughout history, the military has conveniently decided to look the other way when it came to gay people serving in order to keep personnel levels high. But in Department of Defense Directive 1304.26, issued in 1982, the Department of Defense said: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” It cited the military’s need “to maintain discipline, good order, and morale” and “to prevent breaches of security.” The fear was that gays could be blackmailed and, therefore, could not maintain a security clearance.

Several high-profile court cases were fought in the 1980s and 1990s by gay service members who were discharged against their will. The Clinton administration put a compromise measure in place in 1994, which amended the DoD directive. This policy was commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” According to Dr. Gregory Herek, a professor of psychology from the University of California, Davis, the “Don’t Ask” provision mandated that military or appointed officials would not ask about or require members to reveal their sexual orientation. The “Don’t Tell” stated that a member could be discharged for claiming to be a homosexual or bisexual or making a statement indicating a tendency toward, or intent, to engage in homosexual activities. The “Don’t Pursue” policy established what was minimally required for a commander to initiate an investigation. In 1991, Army Pvt. Barry Winchell was murdered by a fellow soldier because of a suspicion that he was gay. As a result, a “Don’t Harass” provision was added to the policy. It ensured that the military would not allow harassment or violence against service members for any reason.

After much struggle, In 2011, the Obama administration repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gays to serve openly for the first time. Open service by transgender individuals was still against regulations until the military began dismantling that ban in 2015. The Trump administration brought the ban back in 2017, and the issue remains in contention at this time. —Janet Holliday