Katie Miller on LGBT Rights and Women in CombatMarch 07, 2013
We sat down with Katie Miller — a leading advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) service members and a 2013 NCCWSL Woman of Distinction — to talk about her experience coming out as a lesbian to the world and the recent policy changes surrounding female and LGBT service members.
Q: Can you describe the day you decided to resign from the U.S. Military Academy and what it was like to publicly come out to America?
A: Coming out to the world … I actually did an interview on The Rachel Maddow Show before I was formally discharged and there was no way I was going to be able to leave post to give this interview, and West Point certainly didn’t want that to happen. So I ended up setting up Skype so I could do a live interview with Rachel Maddow from my computer. And at that point I hadn’t even been out to my father, my brother, or my sister; the only one in my immediate family that knew about my sexuality was my mom.
I remember that was the point at which there was no turning back; it was not only my family that was going to know, but my sexuality was going to be known by the rest of world, too, and I was going to be perceived first and foremost as a gay woman in the military.
And I remember when I was giving this interview I had this bad habit of looking up and looking at my image on the screen instead of looking directly at the camera, which is just poor aesthetics. So the producer told me, “Hey, let your computer screen go to sleep.” So I did, and I literally came out looking at this black screen, which was kind of symbolic for the fact that I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I didn’t know how it was going to be received. The only thing that I had was the faith that I had in myself and my cause.
Q: How did you feel about the combat ban lift?
A: That was great, and it was totally unexpected. Basically, the military has taken steps to make sure that service members have the opportunity to serve in the military and sacrifice for their country based only on their capability.
We have all these arbitrary factors floating around saying women shouldn’t be in combat because of XYZ, which just didn’t hold up with logic. And it’s the same thing with gays in the military. With gays [the claim] was that they would compromise the unit cohesiveness, and all these bogus arguments about why we would be treating a certain class of people differently from another class. And I think that is why President Obama and Secretary Leon Panetta’s legacy is so important — to make sure that anyone who is qualified to serve will have the opportunity and will only be judged based on their capability. So lifting the combat ban for women is just a further example of that commitment.
Q: How do you feel about the recent announcement from the Department of Defense (DOD) providing same-sex couples with a range of benefits but withholding others because the DOD and other federal agencies are restricted by the defense of marriage act (DOMA)?
A: I think it’s really important that since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there is no room for discrimination within the ranks, that [supporting discriminatory policies] is not something the military wants to do. It doesn’t want to treat some service members and their families as unequal or lesser, so it is important that they extend some of these benefits. …
So the fact that the military is taking steps to make the institution more equitable for gay and lesbian service members — it sends a clear message that inequality within the ranks is not to be tolerated.
Also, when they made that announcement, Secretary Panetta wrote in the memo that DOD would aim to extend the rest of the benefits.
Q: How do you feel about DOMA being heard by the Supreme Court in March?
A: I think it’s reached a point where they finally have to consider it.
DOMA is just bad policy making at its best and unconstitutional at its worst. It’s finally gotten to the point where many states are coming out and saying, “We’re going to legalize marriage in the states,” but the federal government still won’t have this capacity to recognize them. So in that way, I think it stands a very good chance that they repeal [DOMA]. And certainly the political tide, the national attitude, has shifted to a point where the Supreme Court will be influenced when it comes to LGBT rights.
Q: What next steps should our military take to better serve women in the armed forces?
A: The big thing is Military Sexual Trauma Compensation (MSC). The rates of sexual assault in the military are just plain unacceptable, and a servicewoman is more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted by a comrade or fellow service member then she is to be killed in combat… The enemy is both on the other side of the line of fire and on your own side. The military is starting to take up this issue.
Again, Secretary Panetta was a firm advocate for reform when it came to military sexual assault, and this is something that’s obviously going to take some time. I think lifting the combat ban will contribute to lesser rates of sexual assault, and it should create an environment where everyone is equal.
Q: What do you hope to do for LBGT members who are still in the military with your work through OutServe?
A: There are a couple of ways we can improve LGBT issues in the military. First, LGBT people are gay and lesbian; bisexual people are not protected by nondiscrimination clauses. The military does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or now religion, but the same protection isn’t afforded to gay and lesbian service members, so bisexual people are probably still more vulnerable to discrimination in the ranks.
And second, there’s still an issue for transgender people. Transgender people are not allowed to serve in the military because they are considered mentally unstable. So a person could have transitioned when they were very young from female to male, and they could now be a full-fledged combat-fighting machine. But the fact that they were born a woman and they are not a man means that they are not capable of serving in the eyes of the military. So that’s definitely the next frontier when it comes to allowing everyone who’s qualified to serve.
Q: I know you look forward to rejoining the military. Do you have a timeline for that and what would you hope to see change by then?
A: I’m currently in the process of reentering the military and I hope, by the end of this year, I will be back in uniform.
I’m excited. I want to rejoin the military for the same purposes that I originally joined, because I love this country and the military lifestyle. I think it’s the best leadership experience that any young person can acquire. Those are things that I would count on being the same: camaraderie and commitment to something larger than ourselves.
But what I hope has changed is the fact that people regard a set of service members as lesser than other service members by nature of who they are as opposed to how they perform. I went to school at West Point with women who would blow me out the water, who really desired to be in combat arms and to have that opportunity. Not only were they incredibly physically fit women but oftentimes more physically fit than physically fit men, which is really saying something. And just being able to walk into a unit and knowing that everyone is there because they are the best is something that wasn’t present when the combat ban was still in place and when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in place. So with that, [we need] just a firmer commitment to making sure that we’re getting the best personnel in the positions instead of discriminating based on any other arbitrary factor.
Q: As a 2013 Woman of Distinction, what are you most excited about sharing with our students at this year’s National Conference for College Women Student Leaders?
A: That’s a tough one. I think the fact that I’m 23 years old, I just graduated college, and I don’t have a Ph.D. or a law degree, and I’m just a college student at heart.
I think what I’m most excited to share at the conference is that nobody should define what kind of impact you can make. That’s only up to you. You shouldn’t be deterred from trying to make a difference, or speaking out, or standing up because of age, because of your education, because of your sex. What matters is that if you have something you believe in, and you’re committed to make a difference, you can do it. I hope that I can instill that in the audience.
This post was written by AAUW Leadership Programs Intern Nzinga Shury.