Jennifer McGinn thought she wouldn't have to tell, that it wouldn't be a problem. "I didn't think that I had anything to worry about, but look where that's got me," she said. She says she should...
BREMERTON — Jennifer McGinn thought she wouldn’t have to tell, that it wouldn’t be a problem.
“I didn’t think that I had anything to worry about, but look where that’s got me,” she said.
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She says she should be three years into an Army career, perhaps off fighting a war.
Instead, the 21-year-old lives in a small Bremerton apartment, works as an accountant and is suing the government for the right to serve. She is one of 12 gay and lesbian plaintiffs in a Dec. 6 lawsuit challenging their expulsion from the military because of their sexual orientation.
She was 18 when she decided to join the military. It was 2001.
“I was just kind of naive,” she said. “I never thought we could be attacked.”
Two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she was in a recruiter’s office. By November, she was in boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
McGinn knew about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that in 1993 allowed gays and lesbians to serve if they don’t tell anyone and abstain from homosexual activity.
McGinn had revealed her sexual orientation only to a select group of people. She hadn’t told her family.
“I never knew that this was something I wanted to talk about,” she said.
The Army forced her to tell, she said. And for it, she was discharged. But she still hopes to get back in.
With the granting of civil unions and state bans on gay marriages, the past two years have been a mix of victories and defeats for gay-rights advocates.
About 10,000 men and women have been discharged from the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. An estimated 65,000 gays and lesbians are serving.
Until last year, many thought that those discharged because of sexual orientation had no chance of returning to service, said Sharon Alexander, attorney with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). The gay-rights group focuses on military justice and is advising McGinn and the other plaintiffs.
“Jen always asked me, ‘Can I get back in?’ and I had to tell her … I’m not going to get you back in,” Alexander said.
But last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that the 14th Amendment guarantees gays and lesbians the right to privacy when engaged in consensual, intimate relationships and that states cannot make it a crime, was the most promising milestone for McGinn and the 11 other former service members. They filed a lawsuit Dec. 6 in a federal court in Boston, seeking to be reinstated.
The Army Court of Criminal Appeals recently cited the Supreme Court case to overturn a sodomy conviction of a soldier.
The Pentagon hasn’t commented on the suit, but said in a statement that only a change in the law would alter its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The military has argued that openly gay service members negatively affect order and discipline and hurt morale.
McGinn, who grew up in California, had been two weeks away from graduating from training when she was honorably discharged. She was training to be a military police officer in the hope it would help her one day become a civilian police officer, like other members of her family.
Her problems started with rumors.
“People were scared,” McGinn said.
Her drill sergeants accused her of kissing another woman recruit and said to her things like “You can’t go to heaven if you’re gay” and “I’m a Christian and it makes me sick.”
Eventually, she and three other women were discharged.
She flew home April 1, 2002.
A recruiter had told McGinn’s parents the reason for her discharge. McGinn hadn’t told them while she awaited her disposition.
“I didn’t think they’d be proud of me,” she said.
Many people knew by the time she got home, and some severed friendships.
McGinn didn’t know she could seek redress, she said. A high-school history teacher, a former soldier, researched options and told her about the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
“I just called and talked to someone. It didn’t start off like a major thing,” she said.
When the Supreme Court case broke, McGinn was asked to join the lawsuit with the other five women and six men, some of whose stories bring her almost to tears.
Being gay was not a choice, she said. It was something she always knew about herself.
“A lot of time people think it’s a phase, something you’re going to get over,” McGinn said.
“The policy is wrong,” McGinn said. “If they’re a citizen of the United States, they should be able to serve.”
She dug out a picture from 2001. McGinn is standing tall in front of a Christmas tree in her Army uniform, neatly pressed, a proud smile on her face.
“There’s nothing like putting on a uniform,” she said.