Locals hail vote on gays in military

By:  Jonathan Martin, Seattle Times
Source: The Seattle Times

When Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., spoke on the Senate floor in favor of repealing the ban on openly gay service members, she had Margaret Witt in mind.

Witt, an Air Force flight nurse from Spokane who was discharged in 2004 for being a lesbian, recently won a landmark court order for reinstatement.

"Major Witt is a true hero, and her commitment to our country should be recognized and honored," Murray said. "But she should never have been put in this position."

As Murray told her story, Witt was exchanging text messages with retired Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who also successfully fought her 1992 discharge for being gay.

Both women, and all the gay current service members, were "vindicated" Saturday by the Senate's vote to end the 17 year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Witt said.

"Today we pushed through the walls of ignorance," said Witt, who plans to rejoin her unit in January. "Now you can see people (for) who they are, instead of just the seeing stigma and misperception."

Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell both voted for repeal. "The Senate did the right thing today in giving men and women who serve our country the ability to do so without fear of discrimination," Cantwell said.

Although the policy that bounced Witt out of a decorated career was repealed, her legal status is uncertain. Witt won reinstatement with a U.S. District Court order in September, but the Justice Department has filed a notice of appeal.

"We hope the (Obama) administration will pause and reconsider whether they'll appeal," said Witt's attorney, Sarah Dunne, of the ACLU of Washington.

In addition, the change in military policy wouldn't take immediate effect. The legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' fighting ability. After that, there's a 60-day waiting period for the military.

From their home in Sequim, retired Lt. Cmdrs. Judy Persall and Diana Wickman were celebrating by exchanging messages with other service members, active and retired, gay and straight. "The wine is already open," Wickman said.

They met while both were still in the Coast Guard and kept their relationship secret. They've been afraid to register as domestic partners, for fear that the military could try to take their pensions.


"It's like I'm breathing air for the first time," said Persall, who retired after 21 years of service. "The weight is gone. The paranoia is fading away."

Wickman does not believe the change will be as wrenching as some opponents, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., believe. "Gays and lesbians are already serving, and their shipmates know it," she said.

Dunne, Witt's attorney, agrees. Noting that several European nations allow openly gay service members, Dunne compared gays serving openly to Y2K, the unrealized fear that computers would seize up at the 2000 millennium. "You thought Y2K was going to be a historic even, and it wasn't," Dunne said.

Some conservatives were unhappy about the vote. "The American military exists for only one purpose — to fight and win wars. Yet it has now been hijacked and turned into a tool for imposing on the country a radical social agenda," said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council.

McCain, who led the opposition to removing the repeal, lamented it before the final vote. "I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage," he said.