Mara Boyd says she didn't realize she was gay when she joined the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps in the fall of 1999 at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"I was very much excited about a military career," recalled Boyd, from Ann Arbor, Mich. It was also, she said, "a great way to help pay for school."
She'd had a boyfriend in high school, and it never occurred to her that the military's ban against homosexuals serving openly would be a personal issue.
Last year, however, Boyd was kicked out of the ROTC in Boulder for coming out as a lesbian. She's now forced to repay $31,000 in scholarships she had received from the Air Force, and she has dropped out of college.
Numbers down overall
Overall, Boyd was one of 787 people discharged from the United States military last year for being gay, according to a report released last week by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in Washington, D.C. The group opposes the policy against gays serving openly, known as "Don't ask, don't tell."
The number was down 13 percent from the year before, when 906 military personnel were discharged, and it represents a 38 percent drop from the all-time high of 1,273 discharges in 2001.
Representatives for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, however, still call the number unacceptable and say they believe the reduction is due to the military's manpower shortage, caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the group, said discharges of gay service members have historically decreased whenever the nation is at war, only to jump back up afterward.
"It looks like the Pentagon is trying to have it both ways," Ralls said. "They have a policy of inclusion and tolerance in wartime, and a policy of exclusion and intolerance in peacetime."
More important things
Richard Bridges, an Army spokesman at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, questioned Ralls' assertion that a personnel shortage was causing the drop in discharges.
"I don't think it's a case of need," Bridges said.
The reason could simply be that service members have more important things to do these days than worrying about people's sexuality, Bridges speculated.
"When you're in combat, getting shot at, you don't care what else is going on," he said.
Last year's discharge numbers for Fort Carson were not available by press time. The post reported discharging 19 people under "Don't ask, don't tell" in 2001, and 10 in 2000.
At local Air Force installations, the only discharge under the policy last year took place at Schriever Air Force Base, according to an Air Force spokeswoman.
In the mirror
Boyd was discharged last June after having come out the previous fall, at the beginning of her senior year.
She had realized in 2001 that she was lesbian, and she had tried for a year to serve while keeping her sexual orientation a secret. But having to constantly lie and deceive others about her sexuality violated the values of integrity and honesty she was being held to as a cadet.
"I had to be able to look myself in the mirror," Boyd said.
When she came out to her commander, her Air Force scholarships were immediately cut off, and she was ordered to pay back what she had already received. Boyd dropped out of school and has worked odd jobs since.
Though her own dreams of a military career may be dashed, Boyd has become an activist in the fight to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell." Many other gays, she said, continue to serve in silence. "I owe it to them to be loud, and to tell my story."
-- Terje Langeland
A fund has been established to help Mara Boyd repay her debt to the Air Force. Contributions can be sent to: Mara Boyd Fund, LBGTAA, c/o CU Alumni Association, 1202 University Ave., Campus Box 459, Boulder, CO 80309. For information, e-mail email@example.com.