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2013 'til Infinity: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The first gay couple married at a US military base speak about 20 years since Don't Ask...

Bouncing off the print issue's 93 Til Infinity takeover, this week on Dazed Digital we are publishing five articles looking at how the events of 1993 impacted today's world – and where the ripples from that tumultuous year are headed.

Expect peices on the birth of a J-pop icon, born-free South Africa two decades on from the 93 constitution and more, but today we are kicking off with the story of two men who fell in love in the army and married on their base – and our journey from Don't Ask, Don't Tell (whereby official policy towards gays in the military was cemented as a brush-under-the-carpet) to the granting of full marital equality. 

We may laugh at the overly simple video games, cringe at the now-kitsch fashion we embraced, wonder how we got anywhere without Google maps in hand. But of all the advances of the last twenty years, the progression of civil rights for gay people have been as serious as they have been life changing.  Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the military. In 1993, Clinton initiated the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. 

"It is not a perfect solution," declared Clinton at the time. "It is not identical with some of my own goals. And it certainly will not please everyone, perhaps not anyone, and clearly not those who hold the most adamant opinions on either side of this issue." It was meant to promote a degree of equality, yet in practice, it only lead to a culture of secrecy and fear. More than 13,500 servicepeople have been discharged under the rule since 1993.

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali know this better than anyone. Raised in deeply religious communities, Baptist and Catholic respectively, they were previously married and had children, living the model of heterosexual lives. They met in 2005 at an explicitly anti-gay church where they were both hoping to induce a change in their feelings. As if their coming out to the church community weren’t difficult enough, as Tech Sgt in the Air Force, Erwynn risked losing his job should anyone decide to report his relationship with Will to a senior officer.

In 2010, President Obama signed a measure to allow gay people to serve openly in the military, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. This year, the Defence of the Marriage Act was found to be unconstitutional. And in June last year, Will and Erwynn became the very first same-sex partners to wed at a military base, tying the knot at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. Though neither set of parents attended, their children from their previous marriages, gave them away.

The shift in attitudes has been huge. Of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Obama said: "We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot, a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal." Gay rights are no longer seen as fringe movement but intrinsic to the happiness of all. A year on from tbe historic, happy ceremony, we caught up with Will and Erwynn for their take on the progress of the last two decades.

Dazed Digital: Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton advised homosexual members of the armed forces to keep quiet about their sexuality. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has now been overturned as a policy and Defence of Marriage Act has been repealed - it is a momentous shift in attitude. How have these changes affected your own experience?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: They have affected us greatly.  We no longer have to hide our relationship and introduce each other to people as "friends".  We can proudly introduce each other to everyone as "my husband".  It also allows us as a couple to be more involved with the military without it being "suspicious" (why are 'friends' so involved).  It also has and will be a huge financial relief to our family of six.  Most importantly being health insurance.  We have had to provide an outside health insurance for half the family which has cost us an unnecessary amount of money on a monthly/yearly basis.

DD: What was the reaction of your comrades to your engagement?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: The reaction from both military and civilian comrades was both very supportive.  A majority of our close friends and co-workers actually assisted in the set up and the flow of the wedding went smoothly which was awesome!  From getting all guests signed on to the base to directions to the base chapel and also clean up, they all pitched in with unconditional support for us and our family. 

DD: Is the military more or less liberal than one might expect? 

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: As from our experience, the military has and always will be about policy, following through and the mission.  If the policy was not repealed, we'd say "yes sir/ma'am" and now that the policy is repealed, we say "yes sir/ma'am." It is fine that other people disagree, but for the better of humanity, they should put aside their differences. Military chaplains do the same thing.  If they do not agree with the LGBT lifestyle, depending on their denomination, they do not have to perform the ceremony for the same sex couples, but must still be there to support their Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine for guidance and for the better of the mission.

DD: Was there anything difficult about your own journey that you didn’t anticipate? 

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: Yes, in regards to our journey, we didn't realize how difficult it would be to hide our relationship. From having to go grocery shopping late at night, leaving our apartment separately, looking into restaurants, all this to ensure that we didn't see/weren't seen by anyone that we work with or we were "friends" with that could possibly say something about us and ruin our careers.  In regards to our journey after the repeal, we were pleasantly surprised with all the overwhelming support and love that we received even from people that we thought would think negatively of us.

DD: Do you ever feel that the progress of the last twenty years is over-exaggerated?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: No, as a military family, we are not getting the same benefits that other military families are receiving.  We're not demanding rights, we just want equality.

DD: You were both brought up in very religious communities - would you say attitudes have changed in all sectors of US society in the last twenty years?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: No they have not.  While our extended family, have been very supportive and loving, some of our immediate family (parents) have not accepted us and in some cases have "disowned" us.  The family that has disowned us/ support us, still hold on to their strong religious views

DD: What progress is left to be made further in the progress of gay rights?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: Total equality.  With the recent repeal of DOMA, benefits will soon be available for our family.  However, it seems like we are still a long way away from every state passing marriage equality.  There are only 13 states out of 50 that allow same sex marriages. In the next twenty years in terms of progress, we hope to see that all 50 states will recognize same sex marriages.  And that it will be the "social norm" so that no one would second guess anything or get weird looks and comments under their breaths.

DD: In some parts of the world, homosexuality is still very much a criminal offence. How might you see this changing in future, and do you think anywhere might be less inclined to see change than others?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: Although we cannot speak for the rest of the world, we do know where the US was 20-30 years ago.  So we still believe that it starts with our youth and we hope that some of those countries in the next 20-30 years can make the same progress but hopefully sooner. 

DD: The current issue is themed around 1993. What were you doing this time 20 years ago? Could you ever see your life taking the shape it has today?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: 20 years ago, we were still in high school in 1993.  We vaguely remember President Clinton signing this into law.  We never dreamed that a law like that would actually have such an impact on our lives.  

DD: Finally, where do you want to be in 20 years time?

Will Behrens and Erwynn Umali: In the next 20 years time, we would want to be anywhere with EACH OTHER, no matter where that may be! =)