Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Margaret Witt was taught to never give up.That attitude propelled the highly decorated flight nurse for nearly two decades in the service and put her face on Air Force recruiting materials. Everything changed when she was outed as a lesbian to the military in 2004 by the ex-husband of the woman she was dating.
Witt was dismissed, becoming one of 13,000 service members pushed out of service during the 17 years of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy. Most went quietly. Witt did not.
“They told me I could be gone in two weeks if I signed the papers, so most of those people just vanished,” said Witt, who was living and working in Spokane at the time. “For me it was a matter of what was right and what was fair.”
Witt’s discharge from the Air Force and subsequent lawsuit put an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Her memoir, “Tell: Love Defiance, and the Military Trial at the Tipping Point for Gay Rights,” was released this week. She’ll speak Thursday, Oct. 5 at the University of Idaho College of Law Courtroom in Moscow.
Witt was serving in the military when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was adopted in 1994. She lived a low-profile life, hiding her sexual orientation from colleagues.
“You create a bubble around yourself, walling off your social life,” she recalled in a phone interview.
“They couldn’t ask you, and you couldn’t tell them. You couldn’t let them into your personal life. If you were involved with someone, they could never be involved with anything in the military. You had to keep it separate. It was challenging.”
When she was suspended and subsequently discharged in 2004, the U.S. was headed to war.
“We were going to war, and I was a nurse; it just seemed absolutely ludicrous to me that I was capable and serving honorably the day before and the next day, because I had a label, I was no longer fit for duty,” she said.
Witt felt like one person, without much power, fighting the machine. But she was hopeful. She had the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington behind her. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas had invalidated sodomy laws across the country, making same-sex sexual activity legal. The tide seemed to be turning.
The suit took years, but she never considered quitting.
“I would say I changed my focus. My initial focus was get back in and be with my unit, my fellow unit members going to war,” she said.
She was told to think bigger by Washington National Guard Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer, who successfully sued the government after her 1991 discharge from the military for homosexuality.
“Cammermeyer squared me up and said, ‘Major, your mission has changed.’ Now that I was in this lawsuit, it was bigger than me.”
Under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military argued that homosexuality was incompatible with good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion. Witt’s fellow service members proved pivotal to upending that idea.
“They took the stand day after day to stand up, not just for me, but for so many. They are the true heroes in this story,” she said.
Laurie Johnson, the woman she was dating in 2004, is now her wife.They live in Portland, where Witt works as a physical-therapy supervisor at the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center. Witt said her co-author, Tim Connor, calls her memoir a love story masquerading as a legal thriller.
“Love is very powerful,” Witt said when asked if her and Johnson’s relationship was strained by public scrutiny. “It can rock your world, but it can give you strength and courage to do things you never thought you were capable of.”
While “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, it did not cover transgender service members. After a lengthy study, the Pentagon determined that transgender members could serve honorably, but this summer in a Tweet, President Donald Trump announced plans to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals serving in any capacity in the U.S. armed forces.
“Now we’re going back in time. It’s not over,” Witt said. “For a transgender service member to be allowed to serve and then wake up one morning to a Tweet on ‘Now we’ve changed our mind,’ it’s very distracting for that service member and for those they serve with. Prior to the Tweet, everyone was focused on the mission. My heart goes out to all our service members, but particularly to those who are transgender. We need to stand up for them. We need to have their back. They’re helpless except to share their stories. They need to know their career and families are secure. All over the country, we’re seeing laws being challenged and rolled back. The fight for equality and dignity and respect is not over.”
That’s why she’s sharing her story, she said.
“I can finally tell it. I think everyone has a story, but only by sharing these stories do we enrich each other’s lives and make our world a bit smaller so we have a better understanding of ourselves as humans.”
IF YOU GO
WHO: Margaret Witt, author of “Tell: Love Defiance, and the Military Trial at the Tipping Point for Gay Rights”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5
WHERE: University of Idaho College of Law Courtroom, 711 S. Rayburn St., Moscow
OF NOTE: The talk will be followed by a book signing.
In this 2006 photo, U.S. Air Force Maj. Margaret Witt talks with reporters after a hearing of a case challenging her dismissal from the Air Force for being a lesbian in U.S District Court in Tacoma. (Photo The Spokesman-Review)