Gays in the military'I wasn't judged on what I accomplished, but on who I loved'

How a high-ranking gay Navy chaplain retired with pride

On the anniversary of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, a career Jewish Navy man shares about serving in secrecy — and finally breaking the news to his friends

Capt. Jon Cutler shakes the lulav and etrog with Jewish soldiers on the Sukkot holiday. (Courtesy)
Capt. Jon Cutler shakes the lulav and etrog with Jewish soldiers on the Sukkot holiday. (Courtesy)

In 2008, under the energetic US Navy chaplain serving with the Marines in Anbar Province, Iraq, a plywood synagogue rose from the grounds of the American air base at Al-Asad once used by Saddam Hussein.

It was the first synagogue built in Iraq in 100 years. During the Iraq War, it was a refuge for American Jewish service members who read from its kosher Torah — a rarity in Iraq — and attended High Holiday and Hanukkah services. These were among the many achievements of Rabbi Jon Cutler’s deployment in Iraq from 2008 to 2009.

Yet all of those achievements could have been dashed had the military ever learned Cutler’s secret: He is gay.

For nearly two decades, fear stalked Cutler and fellow gay, lesbian and bisexual members of the US military under the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), which was passed by the Clinton Administration in 1993 and became law in 1994.

Six years ago on September 20, 2011, the policy was repealed. And on April 30 of this year, when Cutler retired as a Captain, the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the Marines, he walked down the aisle at his retirement ceremony with his husband, Thierry Steenberghs.

This year, the anniversary of repeal takes place on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and remains very much in the minds of Jewish veterans who helped make the military more inclusive.

“​Prior to DADT, the military maintained an outright ban on gays and lesbians,” Aaron Belkin, director of the gay-rights organization the Palm Center, wrote in an email. (Belkin is a past recipient of the Freedom Award from the world’s oldest LGBT congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim.)

US Navy chaplain Jon Cutler presides over a lay leader conference in 2008, during his deployment to Iraq. Cutler trained Jewish lay leaders in the US military to lead services during the Iraq War. (Courtesy Jon Cutler)

“DADT was supposed to be a compromise that would allow gays and lesbians to serve if they agreed to keep their identities secret and refrain from ‘homosexual conduct,'” wrote Belkin.

“The stakes were high,” Belkin noted. “Some service members were sexually assaulted by perpetrators who knew that victims would be unlikely to report them. Others were fired from the military, effectively destroying their careers and depriving them of benefits. Some were, unbelievably, charged for the cost of their training.​”

Cutler said he felt he wasn’t being judged on what he accomplished, “but on who I loved.”

“I was deployed twice [to] war zones, Desert Storm and Iraq. It would have meant nothing [compared to my] decision to get married and love a man,” said Cutler.

He said, “I actually thought I would retire still being closeted.”

Denny Meyer, communications director and veteran officer for the gay-rights group American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER), in his army uniform. (Courtesy)

That was the case for Jewish veteran Denny Meyer. Today, Meyer is the communications director and veteran officer for the gay-rights group American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). Meyer served in the Navy and Army from 1968 to 1978, during the pre-DADT era.

“Serving in that era was called serving in silence,” he said. “If anybody found out you were gay, you could be murdered by fellow sailors. I could name people.”

He joined after seeing college classmates burn the American flag at Vietnam War protests. He said that while many lied about being gay to avoid the war, he lied that he was straight to join.

Flag-burnings incensed him. The US had welcomed his parents as refugees from Hitler’s Germany. At Ellis Island, his mother was admitted as a resident alien refugee after arriving without papers. (To escape to the US, she convinced a Gestapo agent to return her confiscated passport, hid with a Christian family in Holland and bribed a customs official in Amsterdam.) Her parents and all but one brother died at Auschwitz.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Denny Meyer is the communications director and veteran officer for the gay-rights group American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). (Courtesy)

“As a toddler in the late 1940s, my immigrant mother taught me there is nothing more precious than American freedom,” Meyer said.

In the Navy, he helped repair the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, devastated by a fire in the Gulf of Tonkin. He subsequently joined the Army and savored parachute jumps from a helicopter. He concluded his 10-year military career as a sergeant first class.

Throughout, he heard homophobic comments — insults, death threats and jokes — from service members unaware of his identity.

“It was a very difficult way of life,” he said. “I wanted to serve as a patriot, an American patriot.”

Discharged for being a lesbian

One patriot fought back against homophobia and set a precedent.
In 1976, Army drill sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom — who was also an Israeli Army veteran of the War of Attrition — sued the US military after an honorable discharge for admitting she was a lesbian.

In a 2004 Library of Congress interview, Ben-Shalom said her Judaism inspired her fight. She remembered the 6 million Holocaust victims who “didn’t have a choice,” whose plight was ignored “because they were Jewish,” and who “ended up in Auschwitz and Treblinka and Dachau and Sobibor.” And, she said, “very strongly I felt their presence.”

“You have a choice,” she recalled feeling in the interview. “How dare you engage in silence.”

She referenced Hillel the Elder’s questions “If I am not for myself who is for me?” and “if not now, when?” And, she said, “Torah obliges us to deal with injustice and to fight it.”

Miriam Ben-Shalom was discharged from the US military for coming out as a lesbian. (YouTube screenshot)

A federal judge ruled in Ben-Shalom’s favor in 1980, and eight years later, she became the first openly gay service member reinstated, with a promotion to staff sergeant.

“Ripped from the pages of his-story, you would have to dig to find out that a woman — a Jewish lesbian — started the war on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Julia Diana Robinson wrote in a June 30 Huffington Post article, “Miriam Ben-Shalom: The Woman Who Fought ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’”

“Although Ben-Shalom railed against the patriarchy, you’d be hard-pressed to find an article on the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ that mentions her name. But don’t get it twisted — Miriam Ben-Shalom not only put her life on the line to fight for our country, she also kick-started a legal battle so that Americans could serve their country, regardless of sexual orientation,” wrote Robinson.

The military successfully appealed her reinstatement. In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear her case.

“This time, SSG Miriam Ben-Shalom was not even given a discharge,” Robinson wrote. “She was released from the army as an ‘erroneous enlistment.’ Effectively erased.”

The secret-keeper

Other legal cases within the military also ended harshly. On active duty in the Philippines, Cutler served as a counselor in a case involving a young Marine accused of being gay.

“He eventually came out,” Cutler said. “They kicked him out. I was doing counseling. It was extremely devastating for him.”

Navy Chaplain Jon Cutler celebrating Sukkot during his Iraq deployment in Iraq’s Anbar Province, 2008. (Courtesy)

Over the years, other service members came to him to tell him they were gay. He would “give them resources in the civilian community,” he said, including “gay organizations, military organizations, resources — names, numbers, who to contact for help.”

Cutler kept his own identity a secret. Under DADT, he said, “[The] difficult thing I personally struggled with is that so many gay men and women [took] a risk by coming out and paid the price. Part of me refused to take the risk.”

US Navy chaplain Jon Cutler is shown with his Religious Program specialist (RP2) Vongprom (with rifle) in Iraq in 2008. An RP2 is a chaplain’s assistant and bodyguard. (Courtesy Jon Cutler)

He had come out before joining the military, while studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. His later congregations, including in Warrington, Pennsylvania, were aware of his identity.

“Everyone in Warrington knew I was gay,” Cutler said. “It was not an issue. No one said anything. No one was interested in outing me. They were extremely supportive.”

‘Honor, courage, commitment’ are the Navy core values. How can you cover up?

But in uniform, his secrecy returned. “[It] takes a toll on you on so many different levels,” he said. “Your individual sense of integrity, how you define yourself. And two, the repercussions of being found out, the consequences, the emotional impact of dealing with shame, your sense of self, integrity.

“The other piece is where you hurt people by not being honest. … ‘Honor, courage, commitment’ are the Navy core values. How can you cover up? You want to serve. At the same time, you can’t serve.”

US Navy chaplain Jon Cutler, right, helps fellow service members celebrate the second night of Chanukah in front of an outdoor menorah at the American air base at Al Asad in Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2008. (Courtesy Jon Cutler)

Cutler served with distinction. During the Gulf War, he was the lone Jewish chaplain for the Marines and Navy in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. After terrorists crashed an airplane into the Pentagon on 9/11, he ministered to the Pentagon’s military and civilian personnel. He was decorated multiple times.

In 2001, he met Belgian native Thierry Steenberghs through a newspaper ad, beginning a lasting relationship. Cutler and Steenberghs, who converted to Judaism, have an adopted son; their marriage has been valid in the state of Delaware since 2013.

“It was extremely tough on [Steenberghs] as a Navy spouse,” Cutler said.

This was especially true during the Iraq War. “If anything happened to me, he would not know except through my brother, who at the time was my closest kin,” Cutler said. “If anything happened to him, I would have no emergency leave, no support from any of the commands.”

A new military operation

But opinion was leaning toward an inclusive military, after advocacy from organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America, Inc. (GLBVA), which Ben-Shalom helped create in 1990. She served as its first president.

Meyer became one of its national officers; he still serves in the organization, now called AVER.

Meyer joined after losing his husband to AIDS in 1991; they had been together for 20 years. (Distraught, Meyer left the US to live briefly with relatives in Israel; it was his second stint there.) Further, Meyer suffered from incurable cancer after exposure to chemicals on the Forrestal, and spinal degeneration from parachute jumps. The Veterans Administration denied him benefits.

“As I sought to use my veterans medical benefits, I realized that there was a need for some organization to represent gay veterans, so that we could get respectful and equal benefits that we had earned by serving in America’s armed forces,” Meyer said. “Having already been a lifetime activist, I realized that I had just appointed myself to take on that role. So, I started the New York Chapter of an organization that was already doing that work.”

Chaplain Jon Cutler retires with the rank of captain from the US Navy after 32 years of service, in a ceremony at his current congregation, Beth Israel of Chester County, Pennsylvania, on April 30, 2017. (Courtesy Jon Cutler)

Meyer campaigned against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“In 2005,” Meyer said, “I caused the New York City Council to issue a resolution urging members of the New York Congressional delegation to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was copied all around the country — counties and cities, the state of California. We started the whole thing.”

On December 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed repeal into law; it took effect on September 20, 2011. Meyer called Obama “the Abraham Lincoln of gay people in America.”

Ben-Shalom — arrested protesting DADT at the White House in 1993 and 2010 — was more measured.

In an October 3, 2011 Huffington Post column entitled “Why I Didn’t Celebrate the Repeal of DADT,” she wrote that “amidst the celebrations, I hope my community will take time to remember those who came before and those who fought recently and lost. Remember, too, to remain watchful. Merely because something ends does not mean all will end well. Ask any of us who helped to make history about that.”

Cutler’s fellow sailors finally learned he was gay. Their reaction?

“There was none,” he said. “Everyone’s remarks [that it would] disturb cohesiveness… we just moved on,” he said.

Cutler spoke about his experiences at the navy yards in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and at his retirement. Part of each speech, he said, was that “I joined the Navy on a lie, I leave the Navy in truth.”

Rear Admiral Phillip ‘Endel’ Lee Jr. shakes hands with Chaplain Jon Cutler at Cutler’s retirement ceremony from the US Navy at Cutler’s congregation, Beth Israel of Chester County, Pennsylvania, on April 30, 2017. (Courtesy Jon Cutler)

On April 30, Cutler retired, 32 years to the day since his commission as an officer. In a final honor from the Navy, Cutler walked down the aisle one more time, with his husband.

“It’s something I never thought in my entire lifetime could have happened,” Cutler said. “It’s a miracle.”

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