WASHINGTON — Sgt. Pepe Johnson was surprised by the reaction he received when his fellow soldiers learned that he is gay.
“They’ve pretty much shrugged it off,” said Johnson, who rejoined the Army last fall after nearly a decade away. “Most of them were wondering why I had a nine-year gap in service. When I told them it was because of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ they shrugged it off.
“That was a pleasant surprise.”
Six months after the military dropped the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law barring gays from serving openly, Pentagon officials and gay rights advocates say the policy change has largely been a non-issue, with few complaints and no major headaches resulting from the new rules.
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the repeal is “proceeding smoothly across the Department of Defense,” which officials there credit to the “enforcement of standards by our military leaders” and “servicemembers’ adherence to core values that include discipline and respect.”
Officials at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a pro-repeal group which offers free legal assistance to troops on discrimination issues, said they’ve heard only a few minor complaints from military members about the implementation of the repeal.
“We had thought this would be largely a non-event, and that has been the case,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the group. “I think the new regulations permitting gays and lesbians to serve are unambiguous, and the commands have all made it abundantly clear that this is the direction the force is going.”
Military leaders have seen pushback from conservative groups on some high-profile post-repeal stories — such as a picture of a gay Marine kissing his boyfriend which circulated earlier this month — but haven’t faced any lawsuits or mass resignations predicted by some opponents.
Last month’s White House dinner honoring Iraq War veterans included several same-sex couples among the invitees, but in their remarks military leaders didn’t even note that such a public display would have resulted in those troops’ dismissal just a few months earlier.
Johnson was booted out of the Army in 2003 under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” After he shared his secret with some friends, others in his unit started grilling them about his sexual orientation. Feeling pressure from both his friends and others, Johnson eventually came clean to his superiors.
As the political winds changed last year, Johnson said he was speaking with recruiters about returning even before the repeal went into effect last September.
“Their biggest issue was asking when I could start, not worrying about my personal life,” he said. “There has been no backlash, nothing to worry about.”
Repeal opponents remain skeptical. Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, said plenty of troops remain opposed to serving with openly gay colleagues, but fear they’ll lose their job if they object to the military’s new pro-gay agenda.
“The entire administration … has imposed ‘zero tolerance’ policies against persons who are not enthusiastic supporters of LGBT law,” she said. “This is what we predicted, but the effects will not be seen quickly, especially in an election year.”
Much of the repeal fight has already shifted to the next rights battlefield, whether same-sex couples should receive the same housing and medical benefits as their straight peers.
Sarvis said the current benefits rules create two different classes of servicemembers. Opponents argue that the rights groups are trying to use the military to force radical social changes.
Meanwhile, Donnelly said that she has heard from a number of troops unhappy with the changes, who are simply waiting for their contracts to expire before leaving the service. That could cause major problems in coming months and years, she said.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jeremy Johnson, a member of active-duty gay-rights group OutServe, said he anticipates more problems in the future, although nothing to the extent of Donnelly’s predictions. Many of the gay troops he knows have not yet talked about their personal lives with their work colleagues, somewhat delaying the cultural impact of the repeal.
“This was never about having people come flying out of the closet,” he said. “It was about knowing you can’t be fired for being found out. There’s going to be a natural transition as more people become comfortable with the idea.”
Johnson, who was forced from the military in 2007, became the first openly gay person to re-enlist after the repeal was finalized. He said his commanders have warned him that he could be singled out for his public role, but so far it hasn’t caused any real conflicts.
“I anticipate that this isn’t over, but I don’t anticipate major problems, either,” he said.