Saturday, March 20, 2010 – 2:47 p.m.
Lesbian Air Force Sgt. Jene Newsome in DADT Grinder
Former Harrisburg Resident
By Frank Pizzoli
“I’ve always played by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rules, all nine years of my Air Force service. There was no reason for the police to inform the military about my personal life,” beleaguered lesbian Air Force Sgt. Jene Newsome tells Central Voice in a telephone interview from Alaska.
A former Harrisburg resident, 28-year-old Newsome was until Feb. 26 an aircraft armament system craftsman. Rapid City, SD police department’s discovery of her Iowa marriage license – where gay marriage is legal – and the military’s DADT policy – under scrutiny that could lead to repeal – have collided head-on at the crossroads of gay civil rights.
Newsome’s story begins Nov. 20, 2009 when Rapid City police see an Iowa marriage certificate in her home. They were at Newsome’s home to serve her partner with an arrest warrant. Allegedly, her partner was wanted on theft charges in Fairbanks, Alaska.
While police were at her home, Newsome was working at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, about 15-20 minutes away. Police decided to tell base officials about the license, a disclosure that lead to Newsome’s discharge from the military in January. More than 13,500 service members have been discharged under the policy since 1994, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Complicating the matter are police claims that Newsome was not cooperative when they showed up at her home to serve her partner with the warrant. “They called me several times that day. I was at work, 15-20 minutes away, and couldn’t leave. I didn’t interfere with the police doing their work and I don’t know what their work has to do with my personal life, the fact that I’m married to a woman,” Newsome says.
“The police have released different statements about how they first saw our marriage license,” Newsome says. One report says officers spotted the marriage license on the kitchen table through a window of Newsome’s home. “The size of the print on the license is about 6 or 8 point, a small size letter. I’m not sure anyone could read the license through a window,” Newsome says.
In a statement released to the AP, Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said his department alerted the base because the marriage license was relevant to the investigation. In subsequent media interviews, he said the document showed both the relationship and residency of the two women.
“I just don’t agree with what the police department did. They violated a lot of internal policies on their end, and I feel like my privacy was violated,” Newsome says. “I always played by DADT,” she says, adding “I never told anyone in the military I’m a lesbian.
Consequently, Newsome contacted the American Civil Liberties Union – South Dakota in February and filed a complaint against the police department. The complaint claims police had no legal reason to tell the military Newsome is a lesbian and that officers knew if they did, it would jeopardize her military career.
Robert Doody, ACLU – South Dakota executive director says “One aspect of the case is the ability of third parties, like the police department, to ‘out’ service members.” That’s why, he explains, “we filed a complaint with the police department not the military.” At press time, Doody had not received a formal reply from police although he says “I’ve heard third hand it was denied.”
Doody’s legal intervention does not directly involve the military’s DADT policy, now under review by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Instead, as Doody clarifies, his complaint focuses directly on the police department. The ACLU theory of the case is that Newsome’s marital status and sexuality have no bearing on the police carrying out their duties in serving a warrant.
“The DADT policy is important and critical to this, but it’s also a police misconduct case,” Doody claims. Newsome said she and her attorney have not yet decided on whether to file a lawsuit.
“Outrageous,” says Paul Cates, of the national ACLU office. “The charges that led police to Newsome’s home don’t involve her. They involve her partner,” he clarifies. “What Newsome’s marriage status has to do with her partner’s situation and why police felt compelled to inform the military is not at all clear,” Cates says. “It shows the absurdity of DADT,” Cates says. He’s not sure, as police chief Allender stated, the marriage license or Newsome’s sexuality is relevant to the police investigation.
As the story swelled to national attention, Allender said “It’s an emotional issue and it’s unfortunate that Newsome lost her job, but I disagree with the notion that our department might be expected to ignore the license, or not document the license, or withhold it from the Air Force once we did know about it.” Newsome’s marriage document “was a part of the case, part of the report and the Air Force was privileged to the information, Allender said. He also said his department does not seek to expose gay military personnel or investigate the sexuality of Rapid City residents.
In scenarios like Newsome’s involving third-party disclosure of another’s sexual orientation, military leaders may be considering ways to relax enforcement before full repeal may be achieved. Gates has said the military might not have to expel someone whose sexual orientation was revealed by a third party out of vindictiveness or suspect motives. How Newsome’s circumstances comport with Gates’ suggestion isn’t readily clear.
While about 80 percent of DADT discharges come from gay and lesbian service members who out themselves, third-party outings are “some of the most heinous instances of DADT,” says Nathaniel Frank, research fellow, Palm Center, a think tank trying to direct traffic in the debate. Newsome acknowledges that some gay and lesbian service members choose to disclose.
“I was once the direct supervisor of a woman who went to the legal department and revealed she is a lesbian. She explained that she wasn’t suited for the service and was discharged. As her supervisor I had to be right there with her through the process,” Newsome says.
South Dakota is home to Mount Rushmore National Park where the heads of four presidents are carved in stone. Is DADT carved in stone?
South Dakota ABC-affiliate KOTA TV asked visitors to their web site: Do you support allowing gays to serve openly in the military or do you support the current policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”? At press time, 46% supported the change, 47% supported DADT, and 7% didn’t know.
While the nation debates the future of DADT, Newsome contemplates her future. “I’m not an activist. I hadn’t planned to be changing my life. Right now I’m looking into different jobs. If I hadn’t been discharged I’d be making the Air Force my career,” she says.