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LGBT vet: The military's culture didn't change when Don't Ask Don't Tell ended




Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Jeff Sheng
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Air Force veteran Brad Badgley served from 2004 - 2010. As a gay man, he remained closeted under the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Less than a year after he left the service, the policy was repealed.
Brad Badgley
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Will and Erwynn were photographed as part of the series in 2010.
Jeff Sheng
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. When Will and Erwynn married in 2012, Sheng was there again to photograph their nuptials.
Jeff Sheng
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Jeff Sheng
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Brad Badgley appeared under the pseudonym James.
Photographer Jeff Sheng's photo essay documented LGBT servicemembers during the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Jeff Sheng


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Many LGBT service members had to serve in the closet under the policy Don't Ask, Don't Tell for almost two decades. It wasn't until September 2011 that it was repealed.

But that doesn't automatically mean the armed services became a welcoming place.

"For me it's about trust," says Air Force veteran Brad Badgley," and that could be a difficult thing for people who've had their entire career in the military experience discrimination."

Badgely served from 2004 to 2010 and, as a gay man, was closeted during that entire time.

"It all started for me at boot camp," he recalls. His superiors said that if you want to get out of the military, just say that you're gay and your career is over.

"That sort of gave a picture right off the bat that this was not a welcome, opening environment and it sort of came off as you're weak or less than because you're gay," he says.

Photographer Jeff Sheng says that was a common theme among many of the people he met. Starting in 2009, he created a series with pictures of Badgley and many other service members, all with their faces and identities hidden.

"It was interesting to meet somebody who had a lot to lose," Sheng says, "but they wanted to be seen and they wanted to be heard."

However, despite the policy, many of those same people were committed to staying in the military.

"I believe in serving my country and community," says Badgley. 

But after six years staying closeted had become an emotional drain for him and he decided to leave. Sheng says it was a familiar story he heard from others.

"There's a lot of emotional energy that gets spent having to deal with this," he says. "For some of these service members, even though the fear of being formally kicked out was gone, some still feel pressure to live up to some sort of ideal."

Sheng is now revisiting with many of those people he photographed years ago for an opportunity to take their pictures again, except this time to proudly show their faces.

"For myself, it's this huge reward to be able to mark progress in this country in a way that you can show visually," he says.

But Badgley says that there are still inequities for LGBT veterans, and many are treated differently.

For example, he says that seeing doctors at the VA can be stressful for veterans who've been accustomed to lying when talking about their partners and sexual history. Badgley says it would be helpful for medical staff to be trained in LGBT sensitivity.

"It's probably because of people not thinking that far ahead, so it's not their intention," he says. "We are making some great progress there, but I look forward to seeing where we can go."

This piece is part of KPCC's ongoing coverage of issues affecting veterans for Veterans Day 2014. See more of our coverage at KPCC.org/vets.