Baker Speaks on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Shalonda Baker was a smart woman who loved the military and serving her country. She attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where she excelled in her studies and became a member of the women’s national rugby team. “I am grateful for my experience [at the Academy],” Ms. Baker said. “It changed my life.” It certainly did; in her Junior year at the Academy, Ms. Baker discovered she was a lesbian. PA’s Gay-Straight Alliance invited Ms. Baker to speak to the school at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting about her experiences with the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning homosexuals. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy says that soldiers can’t ask other soldiers about their sexual orientation, and at the same time, gay soldiers are not allowed to have homosexual relations or engage in homosexual conduct. Over 10,000 other people have been discharged from the armed forces for violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was created in 1993 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, was meant to allow homosexuals to serve in the military without feeling threatened, discriminated against, or persecuted. “But this policy forces gays into closets and forbids them from having homosexual conduct,” said Ms. Baker. After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1998, Ms. Baker began her five-year initial tour of duty in the Air Force. She had not told anybody about her sexual orientation, and she was not planning on doing so. “I kept ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in my back pocket,” she said. For the first part of her service, Ms. Baker served as a recruiter for the Air Force. During this time she was miserable because she was forced to keep her sexual orientation a secret. Ms. Baker was rewarded for her efforts a recruiter with a medal and a promotion, and soon she was transferred to an air base in Los Angeles. Ms. Baker’s high-profile position there compelled her to continue to keep her personal life a secret. Meanwhile, Ms. Baker was involved in an abusive relationship with her partner. Yet because of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, she felt that she needed to keep silent about it. “Twice I remember going to work with black eyes, but I just lied about the source of injury,” Ms. Baker said. Ms. Baker eventually managed to extricate herself from this relationship. The whole experience had taught her that she no longer wanted to hide her homosexuality. At the age of 22, Ms. Baker decided to come out. With the help of lawyers, Ms. Baker wrote out a statement of homosexuality and handed it to her boss. “My boss was shocked; he said, ‘Can you think about it for a little while?’ But as I looked at the pictures of his family on his desk, I realized that I would never be able to put pictures of my own family on my desk. It was then that I knew I wanted to come out,” Ms. Baker said. Ms. Baker presented her case to a board of inquiry. She said that she could not continue living a double life, but she stressed that she wanted to remain in the military if she was allowed to openly express her sexuality. But the Board concluded that Ms. Baker had only made the statement of homosexuality in order to get out of her military service. They discharged Ms. Baker and said that she had to pay back the military for her education. Ms. Baker is currently appealing this decision. Before Ms. Baker left the base for good, a retired female major called Ms. Baker into her office. The woman had served in the military for 20 years and was now working at the L. A. base as a civilian. The major said to Ms. Baker, “I’m proud of you, kiddo. Thank you! You have done what so many of us don’t have the strength to do.” The major was a lesbian, and she had hid this fact for 20 years so that she could continue to serve in the military. Ms. Baker feels that her right to be openly gay was worth her discharge. “I was no longer ashamed of who I was; I was free!” she said.