Obama signed into law an end to the Clinton-era policy that barred gays from serving openly.
As a lieutenant in the Navy in the mid-1980s, Nancy Gertner was part of a three-person administrative board convened to determine whether a petty officer first class with more than a decade in the service should be thrown out for "reason of homosexuality."
Based on evidence that she called "third-rate photographs similar to anything seen today on Facebook," the two other board members, both men, recommended that the man be discharged. Gertner filed a dissent. Ultimately the commander backed Gertner and the man was retained.
For Gertner, who retired in 1997 as a lieutenant commander, separating out people based on their sexual orientation was wrong then and now. On a day when President Obama signed into law the repeal of the 17-year-old provision known as "don't ask, don't tell," Gertner said the country is a step closer to recognizing that military service comes from many corners.
"Valor isn't confined by boundaries that we define by demographics like gender, or race, or creed, or sexual preference. My military service ended in 1997 and I can say I served in a segregated military. There were still boundaries," she said. "I do think that was wrong."
The provision was seen by many as a clumsy Clinton-era attempt at negotiating the minefield of gender politics and military readiness. Even before the establishment of "don't ask, don't tell," it was understood that prohibitions against homosexuality in the military meant more on paper than in reality.
Jim Gray, a retired master sergeant who spent more than 43 years in the active Army and reserves, has no doubt that every unit he served in had gay soldiers. His military career also saw the evolution of women in more active military roles and in erasing units segregated by race.
"You just didn't bring it up. They didn't bring it up as long as they did their job, nobody picked on them for that purpose. I didn't have a problem with it. I still don't," said Gray, now an officer with the Twin Cities Army Retiree Council. "Everybody judges you by carrying your load. Nobody gives a damn as long as you do your share."
In 2006, Mankato gay activist Jacob Reitan founded the Right to Serve movement, a campaign that challenged "don't ask, don't tell" by having gays and lesbians go into military recruiting stations and attempt to join.
Reitan made his first attempt in the Twin Cities in 2006 when he tried to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard in a Roseville recruiting office.
When he refused to leave the recruiting office, he was arrested for trespassing. It is believed to be the first national act of civil disobedience related to "don't ask, don't tell." On Wednesday, he was at the packed room in the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., to witness the signing.
"It was very powerful. It did feel very much like the culmination of work," Reitan said. "The room was filled with all these people who had worked seeking to end this. It was collectively, a pinnacle moment for us."
The military's position on homosexuality remains painful for Chante Wolf, who struggled with the moral dilemma of reporting a subordinate who told her she was a lesbian while Wolf was in the Air Force. An arrest warrant was actually written for Wolf, who would have faced discipline if she did not report the woman, who had made the declaration in front of other people as well.
The struggle was compounded by the fact that Wolf herself was a closeted lesbian during her 12-year military career. She left the service in 1992, one year before "don't ask, don't tell" was implemented.
"I'm very grateful for people having the courage to come forward. It's tremendously hard," she said. "But I'm a little apprehensive. I know there is going to be some fallout because the military is a very machismo institution.
"I'm concerned about the physical safety, the mental safety of those lesbian and GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] folks who are still in the military. It's just the nature of the guys."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434