Beginning today, gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a policy that's been on the books since 1993 and nullified by Congress in December 2010, ended at midnight.
But for 23-year-old William Gordon, who served in Iraq with the Army National Guard's 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry "Red Bulls" Division, the moment comes too late to save his military career.
Gordon joined the Guard while he was a student at Macalester College in St. Paul. The son of a Nashville, Tenn., preacher, he came out to his parents when he was in his late teens. In the Guard, he planned to focus on his job as a paralegal. He didn't think his sexual orientation would matter.
"I was the type of person that didn't throw my sexuality, you know, in people's faces or was very out about it and that's part of my upbringing," Gordon said. "But I was also the type of person where if you were respectful enough to ask, I had no problem telling."
In January of 2009, Gordon was deployed with the Red Bulls to Iraq. In the intensity of a combat zone, he decided to risk telling his fellow soldiers he was gay.
"More than anything, the response that I got was 'OK, I don't care,' or something along those lines," he said. "I was very happy about that."
But Gordon didn't come out to his superiors. And he didn't want his phone calls and e-mails to reveal his relationship with his fiancé.
"I probably talked to him maybe once a week on phone calls," Gordon said. "And our e-mails were like, very cryptic. So it was very stressful, very anxiety-producing and very strained on our relationship," Gordon said.
The engagement eventually broke off.
Gordon was later medically evacuated from Iraq, and back home he struggled with what he felt was a lack of care from the Guard. In December 2009, he decided to write a letter to his superiors.
"To whom it may concern, I, Private First Class William Brandon Gordon am hereby declaring myself identification as a member of the GLBT community," he wrote.
Gordon thanked the military for the opportunity to serve his country, but wrote he could no longer fight for freedom while not being allowed the freedom to be himself.
He said his superior officers offered him the opportunity to recant, which he declined, and a disciplinary investigation was launched. Gordon was eventually informed he would be brought up on charges of going absent without leave for missing drills.
So, even as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is repealed, Gordon says he believes the door has closed on his military service. He's moved on to teaching and coaching.
Minnesota Guard spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Olson said the Guard has no cases pending against members for what it terms "homosexual conduct." Since the policy's inception in 1993, Olson says the Guard has discharged two people. They are eligible to re-enlist now that the gay ban has been repealed.
Perhaps the most famous case in Minnesota of a military non-dismissal over sexual orientation concerns Capt. Pamela Mindt. In 1992, Mindt told her superiors she was a lesbian, and at a disciplinary hearing declared that her job performance, not her sexual orientation, should be the standard by which she was judged.
Hear a 1993 MPR News story about Capt. Pamela Mindt.
"I'm an excellent, competent soldier and my being a lesbian has got nothing to do with my being a soldier," she said. "When I put this uniform on, I'm a soldier first."
Although Mindt was in violation of rules prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving, her dismissal never went through, and she is now a colonel in the Oregon National Guard. She declined an interview request from MPR News.
The repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" doesn't bring full equality for gays and lesbians. For example, their partners or spouses don't receive survivor benefits. And that bothers Mankato native Jacob Reitan.
In 2006, Reitan coordinated a national protest called "Right to Serve." He tried to enlist as an openly gay man in the Minnesota National Guard. When he was refused, he began a sit-in at the Roseville recruiting office and was arrested and charged with trespassing.
"In 2006, when I tried to sign up, I meant it," said Reitan, whose grandfather served in the Navy. "I would have gone, had they taken me."
Instead, Reitan went to Harvard Divinity School and is now a University of Minnesota law student. At age 30, he said he no longer considers enlisting, but he did attend President Barack Obama's signing of the bill that repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
"What a lot of people don't know is this is really only the second time there's ever been a federal law that's sought to protect gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in America," Reitan said. "This is really a landmark, historic occasion."
VICTORY DECADES LATER
One Vietnam-era veteran celebrating the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is Ken Scholes of Minneapolis. Scholes served in the Navy from 1968 to 1972. He was discharged in 1972 for being gay.
"I did think we'd eventually succeed," Scholes said. "My biggest worry is that we'd succeed but I wouldn't be around to enjoy what's happened after I died, but fortunately I'm young enough to live and enjoy this great — I think it's a great — I'm just overjoyed that this is happening."
Scholes is flying to Washington D.C. today to celebrate the end of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," which also happens to come on his 62nd birthday.