Photograph by Steven Higgs

Mark Brostoff spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy living "deep under the radar" as a gay man. He is pleased to see court rulings supporting gay rights but worries about gains energizing the religious right. He is an occasional co-host of WFHB's BloomingOUT radio program.

Serving in a homophobic military is an experience Mark Brostoff can relate to. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1982 to 2002, before and after Congress implemented "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military policy that allows homosexuals to serve but honorably discharges them if their orientation is discovered.

America made progress toward removing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on May 21 when three judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit that could bring an end to the 15-year-old policy.

The court said military officials must prove that having a gay person in the unit hurts morale and that discharge is the only way to improve morale, according to a May 22 Associated Press story.

Brostoff, the associate director of the Kelley Undergrad Career Services, said he wants the policy changed, but he has concerns.

"I do not want (to) risk moving backwards in the achievements the gay community has gained," he said.

Brostoff fears the "religious right" may retaliate with more anti-gay marriage legislation if "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is overturned.

He pointed to the last eight years for guidance. In the last two presidential elections gay rights moved to the front of the political discussion, which resulted in many states adding anti-gay marriage amendments to their constitutions. Brostoff noted these are hard to remove.

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Brostoff sees the problem as much deeper than a military policy, and even deeper than the topic of sexuality.

"What we need to focus on is how religion has become such a dramatic policy-maker in this country," he said. "This ultra-conservatism that has been rampant over the last eight years under Bush, ... to me, that's what threatens our society much more than someone's sexuality."

The court’s Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell ruling is one of several advancements made this year.

Another legal victory came on May 15, when the California Supreme Court turned down a ban on same-sex marriages in a 4-3 ruling.

And on Jan. 1, retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili, who originally supported Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 1993, published an op ed in the New York Times saying he no longer opposes homosexuals openly serving.

In his piece, Shalikashvili credited gay servicemen for showing him "just how much the military has changed and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers."

Brostoff is not surprised by Shalikashvili's statement.

"The military leaders are probably seeing that faster than the elected officials," he said. In his view congressmen are "the ones who have to face the fact that this law is no longer needed."

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Brostoff said the military did not take away any of his rights. He voluntarily served, knowing "the rules of the game."

"I wanted to serve my country," he said. "I wanted to be an officer in the Navy, and I was unwilling to let my sexual orientation deprive me of that experience."

Nonetheless, Brostoff had to hide a part of himself solely because of his sexual preference. He served for 20 years without being "discovered" as a gay man, but witnessed many discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Such was the case of Major Margaret Witt, an Air Force flight nurse who was suspended without pay in 2004 and honorably discharged in October of 2007, two years away from retiring with benefits.

She sued the Air Force, and it was her case that the appeals court reinstated. The court did not strike down the policy but ruled the Air Force must prove that her dismissal furthered the military's goals of "troop readiness" and "unit cohesion."

"I am thrilled by the court's recognition that I can't be discharged without proving that I was harmful to morale," Witt said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state.

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Brostoff saw himself more as bisexual than gay in the early years of his service, but he still remembers living "with a fear of being outed."

During his service Brostoff lived in Newport, R.I., and San Diego, both of which have large populations of gays and lesbians. He, however, didn't have the luxury of going to a gay bar or being seen with his partner in public.

"When I got to my 20 years and I retired there was a huge sigh of relief," he said. "I no longer had to be concerned about going out, or telling people who I was, or being truthful to myself."

On several occasions, between the years of 1982 and 1988, the commanding officer called Brostoff in to question him why he wasn't married.

"There's no question that if you're a young, junior officer ... (and) if you don't have plans to get married, there is absolutely going to be an experience of your sexual orientation being questioned," Brostoff said.

Such interrogations did not "limit my ability to socialize," he said, and, "In fact I had a partner in the first few years of being in the Navy."

But he recalled living a "double life" and "living deep under the radar." As time passed, Brostoff became less comfortable in this position, and by the 15th or 16th year he no longer participated in military social activities.

"I felt that was really portraying who I wasn't," Brostoff said. "Then I began to realize that I was really lying, if you will, to myself."

Emily Schaltter can be reached at emschlat@indiana.edu.