Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Gay Chaplain Retires with Pride After DADT Repeal

Capt. Jon Cutler shakes the lulav and etrog with Jewish soldiers on the Sukkot holiday. (Courtesy)
On the anniversary of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal, a career Jewish Navy man shares about serving in secrecy -- and finally breaking the news to his friends:

In 2008, under the energetic US Navy chaplain serving with the Marines in Anbar Province, Iraq, a plywood synagogue rose from the grounds of the American air base at Al-Asad once used by Saddam Hussein.

It was the first synagogue built in Iraq in 100 years. During the Iraq War, it was a refuge for American Jewish service members who read from its kosher Torah — a rarity in Iraq — and attended High Holiday and Hanukkah services. These were among the many achievements of Rabbi Jon Cutler’s deployment in Iraq from 2008 to 2009.

Yet all of those achievements could have been dashed had the military ever learned Cutler’s secret: He is gay.

For nearly two decades, fear stalked Cutler and fellow gay, lesbian and bisexual members of the US military under the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), which was passed by the Clinton Administration in 1993 and became law in 1994.

Six years ago on September 20, 2011, the policy was repealed. And on April 30 of this year, when Cutler retired as a Captain, the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the Marines, he walked down the aisle at his retirement ceremony with his husband, Thierry Steenberghs.

This year, the anniversary of repeal takes place on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and remains very much in the minds of Jewish veterans who helped make the military more inclusive.

“​Prior to DADT, the military maintained an outright ban on gays and lesbians,” Aaron Belkin, director of the gay-rights organization the Palm Center, wrote in an email. (Belkin is a past recipient of the Freedom Award from the world’s oldest LGBT congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim.)

“DADT was supposed to be a compromise that would allow gays and lesbians to serve if they agreed to keep their identities secret and refrain from ‘homosexual conduct,'” wrote Belkin.

“The stakes were high,” Belkin noted. “Some service members were sexually assaulted by perpetrators who knew that victims would be unlikely to report them. Others were fired from the military, effectively destroying their careers and depriving them of benefits. Some were, unbelievably, charged for the cost of their training.​”

Cutler said he felt he wasn’t being judged on what he accomplished, “but on who I loved.”

“I was deployed twice [to] war zones, Desert Storm and Iraq. It would have meant nothing [compared to my] decision to get married and love a man,” said Cutler.

He said, “I actually thought I would retire still being closeted.”

See full story here.