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October 30, 2007

Bleu Copas on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Submitted by
Samara K. Schwartz

At Fort Bragg, Bleu Copas was a gay soldier jumping out of airplanes alongside straight soldiers. “My homosexuality didn’t make me any less effective as a paratrooper.” And a satirical test conducted by The Daily Show, which involved a striptease, revealed that Bleu’s sexuality didn’t interfere with his skills as an Arabic translator either. Yet Bleu was dismissed from the Army in December 2005 under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

On October 11, Bleu spoke to a packed Hutchins Hall 218 about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He used his own story as a case study, putting a face on a policy that he reported has resulted in the discharge of 11,000 service members since its introduction in 1993. The talk was co-sponsored by Outlaws and the ACLU. Co-chair of Outlaws Foz Bullock said “Copas is living proof that LGBT people are unfairly treated in the military.”

Joining the military was a natural choice for Bleu, having been raised on stories about service. As an undergraduate at East Tennessee State University, he participated in ROTC. The events of September 11, 2001 gave Bleu the opportunity to serve, and by the following summer, he had entered basic training. Afterwards, Bleu spent a year and a half studying Arabic – “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

When deciding to enlist, Bleu was familiar with the intricacies of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and recognized that the policy would be a compromise, even though he had always lived in secrecy about his homosexuality. “I still feel like I upheld [my] end of the bargain by never telling,” Bleu said.

To this day, Bleu doesn’t know who told. While awaiting deployment to the Middle East, Bleu had been selected as one of 300 service members to represent his unit in the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus, which he said is used as a visual recruiting tool for the military. One day, thirty choral members were informed that an email was circulating concerning a gay soldier in their midst. “My stomach switched places with my heart,” Bleu recalled. “To my knowledge, I was the only gay serving in the chorus.” Later, he confronted his platoon sergeant and said that this inquiry had been a blatant violation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

But the inquiry didn’t end there. Messages began to flood the inboxes of other command leaders and now mentioned Bleu by name. The informant remained – and remains – anonymous. Bleu did communicate with the individual through instant messaging, and he tried to glean from their chats some clue as to the person’s identity.

Bleu sought advice from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, looking to them daily to understand how to contend with an inappropriately enforced policy and illegally obtained evidence. Bleu’s email account was even broken into and a handful of messages collected. Though Bleu complied with the investigation and even aided it – he produced the Yahoo Messenger chats – he chalked up his dismissal to his unwillingness to answer questions. A JAG defender had informed Bleu that he could decline to respond, and Bleu did so. Ultimately, Bleu asked to have an attorney, at which point the questioning stopped. Bleu learned afterwards that the questioning officer – the only judge of Bleu’s fate in the military – had concluded that Bleu’s apparent reluctance to participate evidenced dishonesty.

Bleu admitted that his discharge was not a significant professional loss; less than a year remained on his contract. And challenging the investigation could have had a much larger price tag: a potential criminal proceeding.

Instead, it’s the government that shoulders the burden of the price tag. Bleu explained that the military has spent more than $365 million to fire and replace homosexual service members. Bleu’s training took two years, including a year and a half to complete security clearance. He reported that at least 60 Arabic linguists have been discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell since September 11.

Even so, Bleu said that 65,000 homosexual service members remain in active service. He also said that this is, to a great extent, not perceived as a problem. Bleu offered some numbers: studies have shown that 25 percent of soldiers know of someone who is homosexual in their unit, and 79 percent of soldiers are okay with this. “It’s sad that the people who make this policy are so detached from the foot soldiers,” Bleu observed.

That other countries allow GLBT individuals to serve openly reveals the policy’s limited influence, Bleu noted. “Members of British and Israeli task forces are serving openly alongside our forces,” he said. “Almost all of my co-workers knew. And it didn’t cause a problem or hinder our mission.” This was especially true during Bleu’s Arabic training; on his dormitory hall, every other room was home to a gay soldier. “I don’t know why we decided we could learn languages,” he commented with a smile.

Numbers also reveal that lesbians are particularly vulnerable under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Bleu said. Though women comprise only 15 percent of the military force, they represent 30 percent of those discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Bleu remains confident, though, that much will change within five years. Timeliness and a receptive administration will be key to the passage of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246), which would repeal the policy, Bleu said.

Even though Bleu questions the legality of the investigation he underwent – “[It] shouldn’t have even happened. If the policy had been used legally, I would still be in the military” – he takes issue with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in principle. “You’re taught from the beginning the values of honor and integrity,” Bleu said. “Because of this policy, our service members are forced to contradict these values daily by living a dishonest life.”

Samara Schwartz is a 1L and the Admissions and Faculty Recruiting Chair of Outlaws.