By Gautam Raghavan (he/him)
Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Gautam Raghavan, Deputy Director of the Presidential Personnel Office, spoke with Gina Ortiz Jones, Under Secretary of the Air Force, and Shalanda Baker, Secretarial Advisor on Equity and Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the Department of Energy.
Ten years ago today, the repeal of the discriminatory law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” went into effect – allowing courageous gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to serve the country they love without hiding who they love, and paving the way for the inclusion of all LGBTQ+ troops in our military.
As a member of the Department of Defense’s “Comprehensive Review Working Group,” I was honored to work closely with civilian and military leaders to prepare for repeal. Through that process, I grew to learn the damage “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had inflicted on service members and their families – both those who were discharged under the law and those who chose to leave because they simply could not square serving in silence with the core values of the military.
Thanks to the power of their example, and the courage and tireless work of countless leaders and advocates, LGBTQ+ individuals can now serve openly in the United States military. And because of the President’s commitment to building an administration that looks like America, we are privileged to have the talent and leadership of LGBTQ+ veterans in the Biden-Harris Administration.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with two of these leaders – both of whom served under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Gina Ortiz Jones, Under Secretary of the Air Force, commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program at Boston University and served as an Air Force intelligence officer, deploying to Iraq with the 18th Air Support Operations Group. Shalanda Baker, Secretarial Advisor on Equity and Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the Department of Energy, graduated from the Air Force Academy and served as an Air Force recruiter before coming out and being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Both Gina and Shalanda shared their reflections on this important anniversary, their motivations for pursuing military and public service, and their advice for young people seeking to serve. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
GR: September 20th, this Monday, will mark ten years since the official repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that weakened our military, discriminated against thousands of service members, and violated our nation’s fundamental commitment to equality across the board. As LGBTQ+ service members during the time of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” what was it like to serve while this policy was in place?
SB: My heart was racing as you asked that question. During “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I was at the Academy from 1994 to 1998, then served as a recruiting officer in Texas, then received my second assignment to the L.A. Air Force Base.
At the beginning, it was more of a joke at the Academy because we didn’t know a lot about it. It wasn’t until I graduated in ’98 and began to serve in Dallas that the policy really became a harrowing part of my experience. I had become involved with an abusive partner, and I was constrained by who I could talk to about the abuse. I couldn’t go to supervisors or public authorities because of the possible repercussions under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It was a policy that had real impact on my life – it put my life at risk.
Once I started reading up on the policy, I realized “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was really about orientation. If you act on your orientation, you were vulnerable to be reported and investigated. Once I realized I was in violation – that this policy considered my acting on my orientation a violation – I had to come out.
GOJ: My interaction with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” started prior to my commissioning in the Air Force. An ROTC scholarship brought me from San Antonio to Boston, and one of the first things I had to do as a cadet was sign a piece of paper saying I would not engage in homosexual behavior.
It’s really hard to truly wrap your head around the fear of living under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The possibility that if someone found out about you, your entire life in the military could go away – that fear was a constant. That is sometimes lost when we talk about this policy, how it drains on you. As Shalanda mentioned, you have to act for your personal sanity.
My opportunity to get an education, serve my country, die for my country, if need be – all of that goes away, just because at the time, we didn’t have enough leaders with the courage to say to anyone we are ready and willing to serve and should have the opportunity to do so.
It’s also worth highlighting that this policy was a decision made by leaders. Now, as the leaders making the decisions, we’re working to ensure people can serve to their full potential, how we can make sure everyone can serve – not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but so everyone can have the chance to contribute their full self to their mission.
GR: Thank you both for your service to our country. You both talked about the deep impacts this policy had on you – would you have considered serving longer if it wasn’t in place?
SB: I was willing to serve longer, but the policy put me at risk. A nonprofit called Servicemembers Legal Defense Network assisted me through the discharge proceedings, but I knew this would be difficult no matter what. But I needed to come out, and I needed to serve openly.
When I told my supervisor, he told me I was on a “fast track to leadership,” that I “didn’t have to do this.” He said this with a picture of his family on his desk – him, his wife, his two sons. He said this, knowing I wouldn’t have been able to share my family or my life, like he was able to. Without “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I absolutely would have continued to serve.
GOJ: When I served, there was no discussion of repeal. I operated under the assumption that my entire career would have existed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – I would have had to play the pronoun game for 20 years to not reveal a partner’s gender, not talk about what I did on the weekends, not talk about who I loved.
The military is known for its bonds. But you can’t have those bonds when you can’t share your life or talk about your family with those you serve alongside. And when you’re in the military, your entire family serves – it’s hard to have seen how that would happen if the policy didn’t change.
GR: Where were you when you heard the policy would be changed, that it was being repealed?
GOJ: At the time, I was a civil servant with the Defense Intelligence Agency, stationed in Germany. I was just elated. We’re celebrating 10 years of the repeal, but LGBTQ+ people have been serving honorably and courageously since the beginning of the Air Force, and I want to recognize them for the contributions that they were and are making.
The anniversary of the repeal is also a chance to reflect on how many people whose service was cut short, or were forced out, or frankly never chose to serve in the first place due to the policy. Now, we have an opportunity to tap into the country’s full talent.
SB: I was walking down the street in Madison, Wisconsin when I first heard the news. I will never forget that day. My ex-partner was actually working on the repeal, and she sent me a photo of the repeal signing ceremony. I stopped in my tracks on the street – I’m getting chills now, just talking about it – and I just wept.
My experience under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was something I tucked away. It was so formative in my own choice to pursue social justice, but it was also something that was deeply painful. When I served, I was in my early twenties – and when I left, I didn’t really talk about it.
The repeal felt like a weight was being lifted. For so long, I had taken myself out of that community with which I served – it was a family, a community. The repeal allowed me to reconnect with all of the people that had gone through the experience of service with me. It was a moment of healing that allowed me to share my full self.
GR: I want to keep with this idea of bringing your whole self to your work. Here in PPO, we like to say that people are policy. What it really means is that when we have folks that are serving from various backgrounds, we’ll get better policy outcomes. You both have served your country in multiple ways, in the military and now in the Biden-Harris Administration. What led you to serve in this administration?
SB: When I left the military in 2001, I really committed my life to service. I had already been committed to service in the military, and I committed again to social justice, equity, and fairness. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” showed me how policy could affect my life – but policy also reflected larger systemic injustices that I wanted to address.
I’ve been working on the equity dimensions of the global transition to cleaner energy sources since the mid-2000s. When President Biden committed to healing this country and challenging its racial divides, I thought, what a great moment this was for our country. We were dealing with difficulties, certainly, but now we had a leader that would tackle issues of injustice head on, particularly in the climate and energy space, and make sure investments made it to those who were left behind. I was hoping he could find the right person to lead that work.
Then I got a call. I was asked to lead that work – everything I’ve been working for has been towards this moment. I was so excited, but at the end of the call, I was asked if there was anything in my past that might negatively reflect on the Administration. I said no, and then, I said there might be one thing – I said I was separated from the Air Force under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Before I could even get it out of my mouth, the person on the phone told me, “Absolutely not. The President believes in building an administration that looks like America and your experiences will ensure that we can have a government that reflects and respects the rich diversity of our nation.” It was a done deal at that point, to work for and alongside an administration that was rooting for me.
GOJ: When I separated due to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it didn’t mean I was going to stop serving my country. It was just a matter of how I was going to serve. In addition to being proudly out, I’m also a proud first generation American. My mother is from the Philippines, and I grew up hearing that I was going to have to give back to the country that gave so much to me. So, that’s a part of my lived experience, too.
We have a Commander-in-Chief that absolutely wants to do the right thing, and we have leaders that continue to push the envelope in the right direction. I’m incredibly excited about serving in this administration – I beat my alarm every single morning because every day I’m excited at the opportunity to improve the lives of our Airmen and Guardians.
I keep in the back of my mind my experience under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” when we had leaders that weren’t cognizant of my life experience. I want to prevent that from happening now in the Department of the Air Force. I want to make sure we understand the barriers and challenges to service that are unique to certain communities to address disparities in terms of race, gender, and intersections of those identities. When you’re in those leadership positions, you are the one making those decisions. I want to live up to the spirit and intent of our administration’s commitment to equity.
GR: I am confident that there will be young people who hear about your stories and experiences and say, I want to do that, too. What advice would you give to young LGBTQ+ people who might be inspired by your work to pursue public service, but don’t know where to start?
GOJ: I always have three pieces of advice. First, be kind. Second, work hard. And third, be so good they can’t ignore you.
SB: I love that – and I couldn’t agree more with those three principles. It’s also about not being afraid of who you are and showing up as your full self. Doing that every day is so key. You also have to live with integrity.
GOJ: Integrity first!
SB: And service before self! We’re saying the Air Force Core Values now. But living with integrity is essential. I would not have been true to myself if I hadn’t come out – integrity will get people where they need to be.
Gautam Raghavan currently serves as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Presidential Personnel Office. He previously served as Deputy Head of Presidential Appointments on the Biden-Harris Transition. Prior to joining the transition, Raghavan served as Chief of Staff to U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal. Previously, Raghavan served as an Advisor to the Biden Foundation, and as Vice President of Policy for the Gill Foundation, one of the oldest and largest private foundations dedicated to the cause of LGBTQ+ equality. During the Obama-Biden Administration, Raghavan served in the White House as the liaison to the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Asian American & Pacific Islander community, and in the White House Liaison Office for the U.S. Department of Defense and as Outreach Lead for the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Working Group. A first-generation immigrant, Gautam was born in India, raised in Seattle, and graduated from Stanford University. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his husband and their daughter.
Follow along Gautam’s work on Twitter @GautamR46.