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Tacoma major fought ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Now, she’s telling in new book

Margaret Witt, center, and her partner, Laurie McChesney, left, celebrate with Sher Kung, right, an attorney with the ACLU, as they leave the federal courthouse in Tacoma in 2010 after a federal judge ruled that Witt should be given her job in the Air Force back.
Margaret Witt, center, and her partner, Laurie McChesney, left, celebrate with Sher Kung, right, an attorney with the ACLU, as they leave the federal courthouse in Tacoma in 2010 after a federal judge ruled that Witt should be given her job in the Air Force back. Associated Press file, 2010

The last few months under the Trump administration have seemed like a bad case of history repeating itself for Maj. Margaret Witt.

The Tacoma native was kicked out of the Air Force in 2004 for being a lesbian. Her ensuing court battles influenced the ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

In a situation similar to that Witt faced, transgender people have only been able to serve since 2016. But now their future is threatened.

In July President Donald Trump tweeted that the “United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

The parallels are disturbing for Witt.

“I can relate to being fine one day and being unfit the next, just because somebody labeled me,” she said. “And then waiting around for months and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.”

Witt’s memoir of her military service, discharge and reinstatement, “Tell,” written with Tim Connor, is out this month. Witt is making appearances in the South Sound on Sunday and in November to promote it.

GROWING UP IN TACOMA

Witt was born and raised in Tacoma.

From the age of five, she remembers car trips past McChord Air Force Base on the way to visit family.

“We would drive around the backside of the flight line and I would always look for the big white plane with the red cross on the tail,” Witt said.

Witt graduated from Curtis High School in 1982 and from Pacific Lutheran University in 1986.

She became a nurse at Tacoma General Hospital.

“But then I realized that I didn’t want to die in the same hospital I was born in,” Witt said.

By that time, Witt had friends in the military and she realized she could still be a nurse and get to see what was inside that big white plane.

A sense of duty, common to career military members, was also a driving factor.

“There’s a little more meaning behind (nursing) for me because I can do it for those that are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” she said.

She became an Air Force operating room nurse in 1987. In 1992 she became a flight nurse. In 1996 she joined the Air Force Reserves.

Witt was questioning her sexual orientation when she joined.

“I didn’t want to put a label on myself because once you’re labeled you’re stuck in that cubbyhole,” she said.

She continued to date men after joining.

“I hoped I would fall in love with a man, but it just wasn’t going to be,” Witt said. “By the time ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ came into play (in 1994) I had accepted myself and my own sexuality.”

The premise of the Clinton-era policy was that it was OK to serve as long as you didn’t tell anyone you were anything but heterosexual.

“A complete fallacy actually,” Witt said of the presumption. “Because in the fine print you could have never told anyone in your entire life and anyone could tell on you.”

Those included family, civilians, even strangers if they had the evidence.

“And you were the one stuck proving you weren’t gay,” she said.

OUTED

In 2004, the ex-husband of a woman Witt was dating informed on her. He recruited Witt’s ex-girlfriend to testify.

“Her written statement was the nail in the coffin,” Witt said.

She was stopped from serving in the Air Force and put under investigation.

“My initial response was shock and disbelief, but running through my head were all the cases of the people who had fought before me,” Witt said. “To me they were heroes.”

Those included Perry Watkins, a gay Tacoma man who served in the Army for more than 10 years while being completely open about his orientation. When the Army became more stringent about gay service members Watkins was forced out in 1984. He sued and was eventually awarded back pay, a promotion and an honorable discharge.

Witt also closely followed the case of Washington National Guard Colonel Gretha Cammermeyer. After informing the National Guard that she was a lesbian, Cammermeyer was discharged in 1992. But a 1994 court ruling allowed her to return and be one of the few open LGBT members of the military during the “don’t ask” years.

Witt knew the courts were her only salvation.

“I was on it immediately, the military trained me well,” she said.

But, before her first court appearance in 2006, she first had to tell her parents that she was a lesbian.

“I did not want to disappoint my parents,” Witt said of why she had not told them she was gay. “I had feared the conversation a long time. And I had never planned on having it.”

Her parents, who now live in Gig Harbor, were accepting.

When District Judge Ronald Leighton heard the case, he dismissed it.

“He was just following the law and the case and what was brought to him,” Witt said. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit court set higher standards for “don’t ask” to meet. That made all the difference.

“What was brought to (Judge Leighton) a second time was the case where they had to prove that I was a detriment to unit cohesion, morale and readiness,” Witt said.

Witt’s Air Force cohorts testified in court on her behalf. The disruption, they said, came only after Witt was removed.

“It was just like being at my own funeral,” she said. “It was incredibly humbling. They are the real heroes in this story. They didn’t just do it for me. They did it because it was the right thing.”

On Sept. 24, 2010, Leighton ruled that her dismissal failed to advance any legitimate military goals and violated her constitutional rights.

“Your service will provide the best evidence that open service of gays and lesbians will have no adverse effect on cohesion, morale, or readiness in this or perhaps any Air Force or military unit,” Leighton ruled.

The U.S. Justice Department initially appealed. But after President Barack Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask,” the appeal was dropped.

Before it was repealed, the policy was responsible for more than 13,000 service members being expelled from the military.

Witt said her case was an influence in the end of “don’t ask.”

“I had senators come to me and say, ‘Your case made a difference because we could put a face to it,’ ” Witt said.

Witt retired from the Air Force in 2011.

As long and as hard as the court battle was, it was worth it, Witt said. An unexpected benefit of the fight is being able to share her and wife Laurie Johnson’s lives with her parents.

Even Leighton made notice of Witt’s family.

“I would submit to you that the best thing to come out of all this tumult is still that love and support you have received from your family,” Leighton said. “You are truly blessed as a family, and I am sure they will see you through whatever obstacles and difficulties you may encounter along the road ahead.”

“It’s been amazing,” Witt said. “I’ve won.”

Witt now works for the Veterans Administration in Portland.

TRANSGENDER BAN

Court battles are in the future after Trump’s policy change on transgender military members.

“(Trump is) pulling out the old unit cohesion, morale and readiness arguments,” she said. “(The government) did a big study. There wasn’t a financial impact, there wasn’t a unit cohesion impact.”

Trump, Witt said, is not learning from the past. Her case showed that you can’t make a blanket statement. You have to prove it in court.

“These folks are service members who happen to be transgender,” she said. “They are focused on their mission and now they have to worry about what’s going to happen to them or their family. And their unit has to worry about whether they’re going to be there or not.”

After being welcomed by the military, transgender members now live and work in limbo.

“I know the anxiety, the betrayal you feel,” Witt said. “It’s your military, it’s your country. It’s like they’ve been set up to be betrayed.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

BOOK READING AND SIGNING

What: “Tell: Love, Defiance, and the Military Trial at the Tipping Point for Gay Rights”

Who: Maj. Margaret Witt.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 29)

Where: University of Washington Tacoma book store.

Information: ubookstore.com/

LECTURE

What: “Find Your Mission”

Who: Maj. Margaret Witt.

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 9.

Where: Scandinavian Cultural Center, Pacific Lutheran University, 122nd Street South and Park Ave., Tacoma.

Information: plu.edu/vocation/meant-to-live/

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