Julianne Sohn feels right at home in the Carolinas. She spent many years serving her nation in the Tar Heel and Palmetto States, first at Camp Lejune and then at Paris Island.
That service ended in 2007, when she was discharged under the anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy codified into law under President Bill Clinton in 1993.
“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is the only policy in the federal government that targets a group of people for discrimination,” the former Marine Corps captain told Q-Notes.
Sohn, 32, was one of four veterans speaking at Charlotte’s main library on Aug. 5. The event was the Carolinas’ only stop in the joint Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers United speaking tour, Voices of Honor. More than two dozen community members attended the event.
Lincolnton, N.C. native Michael Noftzger, 28, also spoke, marking his first time ever publicly speaking out about his treatment as a gay servicemember. Calling Charlotte his home for 13 years, Noftzger was on active duty with the U.S. Army from 1999 to 2003, entering the service after his high school graduation.
“I wanted to make a better life for myself,” he said. “I wanted to have the privilege of defending the greatest nation on earth. In the Army, we weren’t male or female or black or white — we were green and united in a common calling.”
His life in the service wasn’t an easy one — the difficulties of living a double life took its toll.
“To have to live in a constant state of fear and wonder who knows detracts from my focus on my mission,” he told Q-Notes.
Noftzger believes arguments against repealing the anti-gay law are wrong. He said “unit cohesion” is harmed by the lies gay and lesbian servicemembers are forced to tell.
“It is possible to serve openly,” he said. “It doesn’t negatively impact unit cohesion. What really matters is honesty and how you do this job. You serve with people for three years and they think they know you and then they find out something you’ve been hiding. They are going to think, ‘Can I trust this person?’”
After receiving a medical discharge for a back injury, Noftzger later attempted reenlisting through the ROTC program at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. After a doctor cleared him, Noftzger began completing the necessary steps to enter the program — a process cut short when he was outed.
“I was outed to the ROTC command,” he said. “The recruiter stopped returning my phone calls.”
Serving at Paris Island, Sohn said she was well aware of the base’s anti-gay history long before she landed there. In the 1980s, the Naval Intelligence Service carried out a “witch hunt,” of sorts, and managed to force out or discharge dozens or more lesbian and bisexual women. The investigation even made its way to the Metropolitan Community Church in Charleston, whose pastor refused to hand over a list of church members.
“The jokes are still there about single women,” Sohn said. “It is never easy being a woman in the military.”
Dating at the time, Sohn said the anti-gay policy not only put her into the closet, but her loved one as well. She wasn’t able to list her partner as a next of kin. If something were to have happened to Sohn during her 2005 tour in Fallujah, Iraq, her partner wouldn’t have been the first to know.
Noftzger also found personal life difficult. He said the makes it impossible to maintain healthy relationships. Constantly looking over his shoulder and refusing any public displays of affection, Noftzger found himself getting into disagreements and fights with boyfriends.
“Most of the time I tried to date within the military, and mostly outside of my unit,” he said. “When I happened to date civilians, it was hard. I wouldn’t hold hands with someone even inside a car because of this constant state of fear.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, grew up in Greensboro and attended college there. In June 2001, he decided he wanted to serve in the military, but his dream wouldn’t last long — in March 2002 he was discharged.
In training to become a human intelligence collector in the U.S. Army, Nicholson already spoke five different languages, including Arabic.
To the letter of the law, Nicholson never violated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Someone else outed him — a common story among those victimized by the unjust policy.
“The ‘Don’t Tell’ part is liberally interpreted,” he said.
Since 1993, more than 13,000 servicemembers have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Almost $400 million dollars has been spent discharging and replacing those troops.
Introduced again this year, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act would repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and gains more sponsors each time it is reintroduced, Nicholson said. The bill has 168 co-sponsors, including North Carolina Reps. Brad Miller and David Price and South Carolina’s Rep. James Clyburn, all Democrats.
Sohn said she’s committed to seeing the unjust law repealed, and will keep sharing her story until it passes. “I share my story for all the people who can’t,” she said.