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Katherine Miller

Helping repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: A cadet's story

At West Point, Katie Miller faced many challenges — including how to reconcile service to one’s country with being gay under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

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Perspective Series

Katherine “Katie” Miller grew up in Findlay, Ohio, a town with a population of about 40,000 that is located roughly 40 miles south of Toledo in the northwestern part of the state. She attended the local public high school and was always a good student. When she was a sophomore, she started to think about attending West Point and pursuing a career in the U.S. Army — even as she was beginning to come to terms with the fact that she was gay.

From Findlay, Ohio, to West Point

In my experience, the people who grew up in Ohio went to college in Ohio. In my town, conformity is very much valued. Everyone talks the same, dresses the same, looks the same, and there’s a very definitive way to succeed there.

By high school I was on the standard path to success: I had a job and I was getting straight As, but still I didn’t know exactly what to do with all that. I’m from a very working-class family. My parents were divorced, and my mom really struggled to make ends meet. But my father is a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army, so there’s been a record of service in my family, and that possibility was always in the back of my mind.

I began seriously considering the military when I was looking through dozens of college pamphlets, and one really caught my eye. On the cover there was this tall, dignified woman standing in a uniform before a sea of thousands of other uniforms. I later found out that she was the Cadet First Captain—the highest-ranking cadet in the entire class at West Point. Her image exuded leadership; it exuded integrity. There was something about that picture, that pose, that really struck me.

But applying to West Point is like applying to college five times over. Cadets are not just rated based on their GPA and test scores — you have to take a fitness test, there’s medical screening, and you even have to get an endorsement from a member of Congress. It’s quite a process.

The One Chink in My Armor: Being Gay

My aspirations to get into West Point led me to seek additional physical fitness training while I was still in high school. I am a woman of small stature, but I joined the cross-country team, I started weight training with a strength coach, and I captained the softball team for two years. I did community service, joined the National Honor Society, and held a job at McDonald’s. It was a lot. I have no idea how I was able to pack my schedule like that. I guess it was because I had a very specific goal in mind. This was something that I took very, very seriously.

Katherine Miller in her West Point cadet dress uniform

Around that same time period, in my junior year of high school, I had my first girlfriend. I was doing well, but I saw being gay as my big flaw — the one chink in my armor.

At the time that Katie was applying to West Point, the U.S. military was operating under the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Adopted under President Bill Clinton in 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” barred openly gay and bisexual men and women from serving in the armed forces. The law nominally prohibited discrimination against gay and bisexual service members, but only as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. Before 1993, official military policy was that gay and lesbian men and women could not serve at all.

Coming Out Under DADT

On Thanksgiving Day, as I was walking out the door, I said, “Mom, I have something to tell you. I’m gay.” She started crying, and I tried to run off before I started crying, but she made me come back and talk with her. I learned that she wasn’t crying because she was disappointed in me. She was just concerned about my future. She knew that I was embarking on a difficult journey.

I was a little bit naïve about the way I would be treated, and my mother could see that. I didn’t think that being gay and being in the military were two mutually incompatible goals, and I didn’t really understand “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I was aware of the policy, but I thought it would be the way it had been in high school — that people would give me distance, that nobody would ask. After I told them, my mother and my best friend kept my secret very well.

Katie was accepted to West Point and entered Cadet Basic Training in the summer of 2008.

Blending In

West Point tries to make the first 24 hours in basic training as much like hell as possible, but I felt just as I should have: I blended in, I didn’t stand out.

Katie Miller running in Washington, DC

I realized that I was way above the power curve when it came to physical fitness, and that felt good. My classmates were healthy, but not everyone was at their peak physical condition. A majority of my class actually failed the initial physical fitness test — I scored a near-perfect score.

I loved the military community, and I soon realized that these weren’t just my fellow classmates. We spent every waking moment together: training, sleeping, eating. There was so much intimate bonding that happened, and I came to count them as my best friends. They were my comrades and battle buddies.

A 2010 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that there were 66,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women serving in the U.S. military at the time, accounting for roughly 2 percent of all military personnel. Of that total, the report estimated that 13,000 were active-duty service members, with the remainder serving in the National Guard and Reserves. Because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the military’s history of banning service by gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans, the military never conducted official counts of service members based on their sexual orientation.

The Protection of Ambiguity

I had a sense that there were other lesbians around West Point; there was a lot of code. In fact, I was able to network almost immediately. I can’t believe I had the courage, but one day in the barracks I actually approached a woman. There wasn’t a lot of downtime, but on Sundays some people went to church, and she and I didn’t go that day. So I just asked her if she was gay, and she didn’t respond. But she went over and pulled a picture out of her drawer. It was a photo of her and her girlfriend from home, but she didn’t say anything. She was protecting herself by presenting that sort of ambiguity. If I had been trying to trick her or set her up, she could have said, “I didn’t tell anyone. I never said I was gay.” That’s how we all handled “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” — with ambiguity.

The male-to-female ratio at West Point is five-to-one. Even though dating among cadets is not strongly encouraged, it happens. You’re in this very insular environment. Straight girls were able to get boyfriends very quickly and without much effort. But it was really terrible for lesbians, because if you’re even marginally attractive and you’re not paired up, that raises a lot of questions. The dating status of women was always very apparent, which worked to the detriment of women like me. I had no idea how to field the questions.

It wasn’t aggressive or malicious, but naturally people asked questions that alluded to my assumed heterosexuality. At first I’d always say that I didn’t have a boyfriend, but that was exactly the wrong answer because you should never say that you’re single in a group of men who have been deprived!

Obviously I had to come up with another way of navigating it — I had to somehow suggest that I had a boyfriend. My serious girlfriend in high school was named Kristen, so I used the name Chris instead and changed all the gender pronouns. I fabricated a lot of stories and tried to keep them as consistent as possible, but I was definitely lying. At first the lying didn’t really bother me. I just saw it as a necessary sacrifice, a required condition for me to stay in the Army.

Forced to Break the Honor Code

It’s incredibly ironic, though, because at basic training you learn the Cadet Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” You are not to lie under any circumstances, and it’s something that’s taken seriously. For example, if a platoon sergeant asks a guy if he shaved that morning, and the guy lies about it — even that’s a really big deal. If his roommate reports that the guy didn’t shave, that guy could be kicked out of the academy. The results are that serious.

Katie Miller having her Army uniform inspected

Theoretically, no one was supposed to ask me about my sexuality, so I wouldn’t have an opportunity to lie about it. But that concept neglects the reality of how friendships form and how people share information. The fact that you’re assumed to be heterosexual, that’s absolutely going to create a position where you either stop interacting with people or you lie.

Katie proved herself to be an excellent student during her first year at West Point and was ranked near the top of her class. At one time, her grades and physical fitness put her in eighth place out of more than 1,100 cadets. By spring, however, she was beginning to feel more strongly about the injustice of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Betrayed by Homophobia

In April 2009, towards the end of my freshman year, I had a game-changing experience. I was in a class called Professional Military Ethics Education. It wasn’t a graded course, just a roundtable discussion with people in my company. The topic for discussion that day was “Culture Appreciation,” and it was geared toward cultural sensitivities and why they were important in counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was stuff like why it’s not appropriate to go into a mosque if you’re carrying a weapon, how you need to respect the differences between people. That was the general direction that the conversation was supposed to take. The discussion was being led by an older cadet who was a very devout Mormon. This soon became relevant, because the conversation quickly turned to the morality of gays in the military.

An even closer friend stood up and said that obviously gays were going to hell and that he was glad that he would never have to serve alongside them.

A cadet stood up across from me. He was somebody I very much respected — he was very smart and had actually served in the military before coming to West Point. He said, “What if there are some cultures you can’t bring yourself to appreciate, that you disagree with from a moral or religious standpoint? Do you think that maybe it’s for the best that you don’t ever respect those cultures?” He then said that he didn’t believe he should ever have to respect the lifestyle or culture of homosexuals. He said, “I would never want to serve next to a gay dude.”

Another cadet stood up, and this was someone I considered a closer friend, someone I trusted. He said he totally agreed, and that because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it was totally OK for people to say negative things about gays and to disagree with homosexuality. He thought the military’s policy supported that viewpoint. Finally, an even closer friend stood up and said that obviously gays were going to hell and that he was glad that he would never have to serve alongside them.

Katie Miller in her cadet uniform at West Point

I had a very physical reaction to these comments. I was so lightheaded that I was grasping onto the desk, and it was difficult for me to speak. I was angry, but mostly I was offended. More than anything, I wanted to stand up and say, “Hey guys, I’m right here. I’ve been serving alongside you for the past year. I’ve grown to consider you my friends and my comrades. You’re saying terrible things about me. You’re not speaking against an arbitrary demographic of people, you’re saying it about the friend sitting next to you.” But I knew that I couldn’t say that. I thought back to the woman on the pamphlet who exuded leadership and integrity, and I felt like a coward.

From then on, the reasons that I’d gone to West Point seemed impossible for me to achieve under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I had been reduced to something that was not about leadership and integrity — it was lying and cowardice. That discussion forced me to reflect on every way in which the policy had dictated my life for the last year. It forced me to reevaluate how I was going to achieve my goals.

I still wanted to be a leader of character, a leader of integrity, but what did that actually mean? The rhetoric of patriotism is circulated around military service, but I realized there are so many other ways for people to sacrifice for their countries. I decided to resign, but before I made the decision to go public with my resignation, I felt like it was my obligation to make sure I did what was best for the military. I loved the military, and I didn’t want to do anything to spite it. If I was going to resign, I wanted to do it in a way that was constructive.

In April 2009, during the same month that Katie’s Professional Military Ethics Education class devolved into a forum for disparaging gay people, Daniel Choi, a West Point graduate and former Army infantry officer in Iraq who was then serving in the National Guard, appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Choi announced to Maddow and the show’s viewers that he was gay. Following his coming out, he received a discharge letter and became a high-profile advocate for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

DADT: A Harmful and Hurtful Policy

Dan talked about the honor code, about how he had been lying about being gay, and how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was bad for the military. I felt like I was able to find a voice through him.

But I kept quiet for quite awhile and I spent my sophomore year conducting a lot of independent research on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I concluded that it was a terrible policy for the military, and I began to understand that the issue couldn’t be framed as a matter of gay rights, but rather as a policy that harmed people in uniform, people who were already serving, and that it was counter to the Army mission. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” didn’t help preserve military effectiveness, it undermined it. Only by shifting the discussion to the larger issues — military effectiveness and the integrity of the United States Army soldier — would the policy ever be repealed.

Between 2003 and 2010, an estimated 13,000-14,000 troops were discharged from the military because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Instead of reducing the number of discharges of gay and lesbian service members, as advocates of the policy had predicted, the number of discharges actually went up. This was happening at a time when the U.S. military was fighting two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and when military leaders and other experts regularly were citing a need to bring more qualified troops into the military. Research supported by the Haas, Jr. Fund affirmed that the presence of openly gay service members had no effect on military readiness in allied countries such as Israel, Canada, the UK and Australia.

Letter of Resignation

Because of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” there was this strange paranoia that anyone could be gay, and therefore everyone made great efforts to establish their heterosexuality. You had to constantly be proving that you were straight. Everyone participated in that practice. I have a good friend who was a major in the Air Force. He was deployed and somebody went through his personal email. Emails get monitored, but it’s not supposed to be for specific details; it’s just to make sure there isn’t intelligence being inappropriately transferred. He was writing to his boyfriend and I think there was some romantic language involved. Anyway, somebody who’d been monitoring the computers saw that, and while this man was deployed in Afghanistan, he was faced with a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharge. He was pulled away from duty and discharged. It really wasn’t about anyone telling anything, it was about being discovered. 

When I bounced the idea of a public resignation off my gay cadet friends, they all said, “Katie, you need to put your service first. This is just one of many sacrifices that the military is asking from you. We want you to tough it out with us.” I stuck to my decision to resign, but I definitely didn’t want to cause any collateral damage — gay by association — so we decided that all of the gay cadets should steer clear of me at the academy. We all knew that it wasn’t personal; they respected my decision, even if they didn’t agree with it. Now, as I reflect on it, I can see that this kind of interaction is unique to a cadet friendship.

Katie presented her letter of resignation to her tactical officer on August 9, 2010. The letter — which stated why she was leaving West Point, and why she felt that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was bad for the military — was made public by an advocacy organization working on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

An Interview in an Empty Barracks, with Rachel Maddow

When the letter went public, my discharge was looming, but the process usually takes about two months for cadets. I wasn’t certain how long they were going to keep me, but I started getting interview requests from national media sources right away. As someone in uniform, you aren’t allowed to speak to the media about military policies because it’s out of protocol. But because I knew my discharge was imminent, I accepted the interviews. I was confined to a temporary holding area in an empty barracks. There were no other cadets around and absolutely no supervision, so I was able to do a bunch of interviews from that room.

Black and white portait of Katherine Miller

Then I got a call from the Rachel Maddow Show saying they wanted to have me on the following night — primetime national television. It was going to be a Skype interview. I did other interviews during that time, but MSNBC was a big ballpark. I went in with the mindset that this was what I needed to do, and that my emotions needed to be put on hold. That’s something that I learned, ironically, as a cadet — there’s a time and place to have emotions, and you need to designate when it’s appropriate.

On the night of my interview with the Rachel Maddow Show, I snuck away from dinner early, changed into a more formal uniform, and started setting up the audio, getting everything ready on Skype. Then I heard someone at the door and I got really nervous. The door opened and five of my friends walked in silently. One of them stepped up to me as if she were inspecting my uniform. She looked me up and down, head to toe. She tucked my shirt tighter into my belt, wiped a smudge off my shoe. This was all done in silence, and then they all went and sat in a corner, out of the view of the webcam. It was in that moment, when my friends broke the agreement we had made and came to support me, that I was about to dedicate myself to a cause greater than myself. It became about them; it became about all the other gay and lesbian servicemembers.

Rachel Maddow did an introduction, gave some background details, and then I heard her say, “Katie Miller, tell us where you are and what you’re doing right now.” I came out during the interview. I could feel my life changing dramatically, right then. It was out there, and I knew that by the next morning everybody would know. During the period I was considering resigning, I hadn’t been incredibly communicative with my family, but I called my mom right before the interview aired and said, “I’m really sorry to put you in this position, but I need you to come out to the rest of the family for me tonight.” I basically came out to my family on TV. They didn’t hear it from me. I still feel bad about that.

Two days after her interview on the Rachel Maddow Show, Katie received an honorable discharge from West Point. In the days that followed, she was besieged by phone calls, texts and emails from people on both sides of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate.

Discharged and Besieged

In the regular Army, you can retain a sense of anonymity, but at West Point, it’s like regular college in a lot of ways — it’s extremely, extremely gossipy and catty, just outright mean sometimes. The cadet who had stood up first during that military ethics class, he sent me an email saying that I was a traitor, that I didn’t have to do this, and that the military had been only good to me. He accused me of stabbing all of my friends in the back. I didn’t respond to the positive, I didn’t respond to the negative. I just rolled with the punches as the comments came in.

I know that service, at its core, needs to be nonpartisan and that being a servant of the nation is not about pursuing your own personal interests, but I think there’s always an advantage to having the opinion of all kinds of people represented. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” gays and lesbians were invisible.

The contact information on my letter of resignation hadn’t been blacked out, so I was getting random people calling and texting and leaving voicemails. My story was circulating in the national media. Some people were saying that I’d done a courageous thing. I seemed to have created empathy among people who had no idea what it was like to be gay in the military. But when it came to the cadet body, it was a much more negative reaction.

Although the cadets were very negative toward me during my discharge process, the administration at West Point was incredibly supportive and respectful throughout the entire process. I heard from friends later that on the day I was being discharged, the Commandant of West Point was conducting a question-and-answer session and somebody asked him, “What do you think about Katie Miller?” He said, “Well, she should be on her way out of the gates by now.” Which I was. Then he said, “But I still think she could whoop your ass in the physical fitness tests.”

One of the groups that stepped up to support Katie in the wake of her discharge was OutServe. Launched as an underground network of active-duty lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) service members, OutServe was working to connect these troops and advance the cause of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Katie joined the OutServe Board of Directors shortly after her discharge and has been active in the group ever since.

Date Night with Lady Gaga

I joined OutServe for the purpose of providing an image and a voice for people who couldn’t express their own opinions. We found that the biggest problem facing the repeal effort was that people just weren’t convinced that gays were already in the military and the whole discussion about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was taking place as though we didn’t exist.

My commitment to the effort was quickly tested when I got a call saying that Lady Gaga wanted to take up the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Somebody asked if I’d be willing to meet with her backstage before one of her concerts. I joined three other gay members of the military and we told her our stories. By the end she was really choked up. She said, “I want to help. Would you four be my dates to the MTV Awards on Sunday?”

Katherine Miller and other DADT activists with Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga wanted us to wear our uniforms, and this presented a problem because we were all no longer in the service. It was something that I had to think about long and hard, because this was a great opportunity to get some visibility for the movement. We had the chance to reach a huge audience. Wearing our uniforms took us into pretty gray territory, in terms of legality. Once you’re out of the service, there are times when you can wear your uniform — but only to non-politicized events. Of course, we didn’t actually do any speaking, but we were escorting Lady Gaga and she was obviously making a political statement. In her speech at the MTV Awards, she said, “No one person is more valuable than another person. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ must be repealed. Call your senator to get the vote scheduled.”

That night, before I even got to the airport to go home, my phone was blowing up and the comments were overwhelmingly hateful. People said that I’d made a mockery of the uniform and that I didn’t deserve the honor of wearing the uniform anymore. That’s when I received the most hateful Facebook messages, and I got creamed in the media. Lots of people thought that accompanying Lady Gaga was an extreme violation of the no-political-activism rule. But I couldn’t see it that way. I know that service, at its core, needs to be nonpartisan and that being a servant of the nation is not about pursuing your own personal interests, but I think there’s always an advantage to having the opinion of all kinds of people represented. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” gays and lesbians were invisible.

Katherine Miller and Lady Gaga

Days after her MTV appearance on September 12, 2010, Lady Gaga sent out a tweet encouraging her followers to contact Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and to urge him to schedule a vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Reid responded with a tweet of his own pledging that the Senate would vote on the issue the following week. After a delay caused by a Republican-led filibuster in the U.S. Senate, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally repealed in December 2010.

A Slow Repeal

At the signing ceremony making the repeal official, President Obama stated that he was proud to sign a law that “will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend." Immediately following the repeal, I applied to get back into West Point. They facilitated my application process, and made it seem as if I had a fair shot of being readmitted. I wasn’t certain I wanted to go into a climate in which there would be so much hostility toward me, but I did have unfinished business at West Point — it was my dream to graduate there.

However, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t immediately repealed, it all had to be rearranged and managed properly. There was an implementation stage, a dead period when they still weren’t admitting openly gay people, and because my case fell right within that time period, they weren’t able to readmit me.

Katherine Miller's portrait of pride

Following her discharge, Katie transferred to Yale University, where she majored in Political Science. The official repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” went into effect in September 2011 after military leaders certified that it would not undermine military readiness or effectiveness. After receiving her Yale degree in 2012, Katie is currently in the process of reentering the military. Her dream is still to lead soldiers and serve her country.

Many Ways to Serve Your Country

Even with the discrimination I faced, at its core, the military is an incredibly meritocratic institution. I was not of the Ivy League world when I was graduating from high school, but when I got to West Point, I was outrunning everyone. I was performing as a better leader, I was getting better grades, and my achievements were being recognized and awarded.

All of the obstacles I faced growing up were nonexistent in the military. Literally, I could wear my accomplishments on my chest and garner the amount of respect that I deserved. That’s something I really appreciated and still value. I don’t know where else that could happen. The military culture is so straightforward. There were a lot of things we did at West Point that might seem silly to outsiders, but there’s something to be said for tradition; it really does foster an excellent community.

I recognize that the military can’t be full of political activists, but I do think it can be pushed forward by the work of a few people who are willing to disagree with unjust policies. I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I made the right decisions for me, no matter what the consequences may be. By now I’ve learned that there are many ways to serve one’s country. I’ll figure something out.

Read other First-Person Stories from the series.

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