Spokane’s Margaret Witt made legal history when she took the Air Force and the U.S. Justice Department to court over ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and won. The now-retired Air Force Major and her partner, Laurie Johnson, talk about the trials in and out of the courtroom, and how adversity enriched their lives.
Editor’s note: Margaret Witt and Laurie Johnson were married on December 15, 2012.
As a matter of law, the case of Major Margaret Witt v. U.S. Air Force, et al. will forever be about a historic day of reckoning in a federal courtroom in Tacoma last September. It is pledge of allegiance, hand-over-your-heart material that, in the end, eloquently affirmed the Constitutional rights individuals have to “liberty and justice,” to privacy and the pursuit of happiness.As a matter of life, the story is about “Margie” (hard “g”) Witt, a gregarious and uncommonly funny woman who, together with her partner, Laurie Johnson, lives with a coterie of dachshunds beneath a majestic canopy of hardwood trees near Spokane’s Manito Park. Margie Witt is the youngest of three children raised by two schoolteachers. Her father served in Korea during World War II. By disposition she has always been a healer, one who fulfilled a childhood ambition by becoming a decorated Air Force flight nurse.Her rich sense of humor can distract from what the last seven years of her life have powerfully confirmed about her: she’s incredibly strong-willed and, since childhood, she’s been passionate about fair play and human decency. Whatever else there is to know about Margie Witt that can’t easily be put into words, there is also this—in a remarkable twist of poetic justice she turned the worst thing that happened to her into a breath-taking triumph.By way of background, Witt was born in 1964 in Tacoma where she became, among other things, a four-sport varsity athlete at Curtis High School and a two sport varsity athlete at Pacific Lutheran University. She received her nursing degree from Pacific Lutheran University in 1986 and joined the Air Force the following year. She was on active duty for eight years before transferring to the reserves, as a flight nurse, in 1995. She has lived in the Spokane area since 1996 and received a Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy from Eastern Washington University in 1998. Since 1998, her work as a civilian has mostly been as a physical therapist for Spokane-area school districts. She is currently a rehabilitation coordinator at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Spokane.As a reservist, Witt regularly traveled to McChord Air Force base near Tacoma where her unit—the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron—is still based. She was in her office at the base in July 2004 when she was informed she was being investigated. Four months later, in November 2004, she was told that the Air Force was pursuing her discharge under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that required the removal of gay service members once their sexual orientation and conduct became known. She was abruptly instructed to gather all her things and leave the base.In response, Witt filed suit against the Air Force on April 12, 2006. The Air Force discharged her in October of 2007 and, as the story unfolded, it would be another six long months before Witt and her lawyers learned they would get their day (or, more accurately, days) in court. But when the time came, the drama that unfolded in the Tacoma courtroom late last summer was as triumphant for Witt and her family as it was devastating to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I’d like to laugh and say the Air Force did a damn good job training her because she knew how to fight for something, to fight for fairness and justice.”–Sarah Dunne, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Margaret Witt will always be the first to tell anyone who asks that the case, though it bore her name, was about so many more than her. More than thirteen thousand gay and lesbian service members were expelled from U.S. military duty since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented in 1994.
There will be no more expulsions. The government is now under a federal court order not to enforce the policy and, on September 20th, a week from today, the Congressional repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (passed last December) will take full and final effect. Gay men and women will no longer have to hide the most intimate truths about themselves in order to serve their country.
In the legal and political end-game that led to the dismantling and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Witt’s case was one of two prominent Constitutional challenges that the government fought and lost. The other was Log Cabin Republicans v. United States.
The two cases ran parallel to each other and both alleged DADT violated the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. (The Log Cabin case also challenged DADT on First Amendment grounds.) In retrospect, Witt v. Air Force, et al., and Log Cabin Republicans v. United States worked together as a powerful legal whipsaw against DADT, with Witt badly weakening the government’s legal basis for enforcing the policy, and Log Cabin ultimately bringing it down in a final, majestic crash on July 6th of this year. (July 6th is the day the 9th Circuit ordered the reinstatement of the world-wide ban against enforcing DADT that federal Judge Virginia Phillips ordered last October after the trial in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States. The ban is now in effect.)
“Margie was, and still is, a person with intelligence, integrity, with humor and a love for life that people were just drawn to.”–Laurie Johnson
Part of what distinguished Witt’s case is how her lawyers seized an opportunity to turn the tables on the government. Taking their lead from a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Lawrence v. Texas), they argued that it wasn’t enough for the Congress and the Air Force to make general findings that a gay person in the military is a threat to “unit cohesion” and “morale.”
They should have to prove it.
That argument didn’t prevail at first. On July 26, 2006, Federal Judge Ronald Leighton, a George W. Bush appointee, granted the government’s motion to dismiss the case.
It was at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals where the argument built upon Lawrence prevailed. On May 21, 2008 a 9th Circuit panel made note of Witt’s numerous service awards and record as “an outstanding Air Force officer.” Citing Lawrence, the panel concluded that Witt’s due process rights had been violated. It sent the case back to Judge Leighton with instructions that he conduct a trial to determine whether it was actually true that Major Margaret Witt was a detriment to unit cohesion, good order, discipline and morale.
In practical terms, what the 9th Circuit said is that under the privacy rights articulated in Lawrence, the burden had shifted. In cases like Margaret Witt’s, the government would now be required to prove that a person’s private conduct compromised or posed a threat to a government interest. Generic assertions, like those written into DADT to justify the wholesale discharge of thousands of gay men and women, were no longer going to cut it.
The 9th Circuit’s finding fed directly into the proceedings in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States. In reaching her October 12, 2010 ruling in Log Cabin that DADT was unconstitutional, Federal District Court Judge Virginia Phillips applied what is now known as the “Witt standard.” The Witt standard is shorthand for the burden-shifting ruling that the 9th Circuit panel articulated in May 2008 when it sent Witt back to Judge Leighton after concluding that the government had violated Margaret Witt’s Constitutional rights to due process.
Of course, the other thing that was different about the two cases is that Witt v. Air Force had a singular face on it. And not just any face but that of a decorated unit leader, widely respected by her peers, whose photogenic image had literally been used on Air Force recruiting posters.
Margie Witt beams with resolve and humor when she talks about the 9th Circuit’s 2008 ruling. When I first asked her about it we were sitting in her backyard talking about the past while a modest but vocal herd of small dogs offered suggestions and inquiries about the present.
Clearly one of the hardest things about the past, that still causes her to choke up when she talks about it, is how personally isolating it was to be suddenly cut-off from a closely-knit team of care givers who’d traveled the globe to transport badly injured soldiers and airmen.
The insidious presumption at the heart of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is that gay service members are, by definition, a threat to “unit cohesion” and “morale.” Margie Witt is not full of herself. But she was quietly confident that the government was deeply wrong to presume that she posed any harm, at all, to the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Her euphoria upon learning of the 9th Circuit’s ruling was in knowing she would get her day in court, and that a divisive and discriminatory law was going to be tested against the actual truth of her experience with the 446th, and the unit’s experience with her.
“That was the irony of the whole thing for me, the whole ‘unit cohesion’ and ‘morale’ argument,” she said. She then suddenly shifted her voice to make her point with sarcasm. “Really?! That’s the one you’re going to pull out? Because, you know, I’m the one who leads karaoke! Really? Because my biggest concern was the people around me.”
Her humor is easier to capture than her resolve. But right from the start—from that awful day in July 2004 when she was told she was being investigated—Margaret Witt fought back.
Her long-time neighbor and friend, Jan Gemberling, vividly recalls the day when a judge advocate general (JAG) notified Witt she was being investigated. Gemberling remembers because Witt used her cell phone to call her from the parking lot at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma.
“She was mad,” Gemberling recalls. “It was wrong and she wanted to fight it.”
Gemberling is a well-known Spokane lawyer and, as fate would have it, she and Jim Lobsenz had worked together at a large Seattle law firm early in their careers. Among the cases Lobsenz is well-known for is his successful defense of Perry Watkins, a black, gay U.S. Army sergeant whom the Army tried to discharge for his homosexuality in the days before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As in the Witt case, Lobsenz was a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in representing Watkins.
Gemberling contacted Lobsenz and, in a matter of days, Margaret Witt had Lobsenz’s interest and, not long after that, the full support and backing of the American Civil Liberties Union. Closer to home, Witt and McChesney also had Jan Gemberling. Gemberling’s friendship and knowledge of the travails of lengthy litigation battles proved invaluable to their spirits as the months and years unfolded between court appearances.
Sarah Dunne, the legal director of the ACLU of Washington, was part of Witt’s legal team. She remembers meeting Witt for the first time when Witt came to Seattle, in uniform, to be present at the oral arguments before the 9th Circuit panel in November 2007.
Dunne expresses awe at how Witt was able to absorb the isolation and the stresses that the expulsion and ensuing legal fight involved.
“I’d like to laugh and say they [the Air Force] did a damn good job training her,” Dunne says, “because she [Witt] knew how to fight for something, to fight for fairness and justice.”
Witt is the first to say she didn’t do it alone. She had superb lawyers, a supportive partner, loyal friends, and an impeccable role model. One of the cinematic threads in her story is in how Witt reached out to Grethe Cammermeyer, the nurse and retired Washington National Guard colonel who became an inspiring national symbol for gay rights in the years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. (Actress Glenn Close played the part of Cammemeyer in Serving in Silence, a 1995 television movie about Cammermeyer.)
Witt vividly recalls a visit with Cammermeyer during which she was agonizing to the retired colonel about the pain of being separated from her unit. Witt says Cammermeyer abruptly interrupted her, addressed her as “Major” and firmly instructed her that her mission had been changed. Her mission was now to defeat “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
All of this set the stage for the extraordinary scenes in Judge Leighton’s courtroom late last summer. Although the 9th Circuit ruling squarely put the burden on the government to prove that Witt was a detriment to her unit, Dunne, Lobsenz and the rest of Witt’s ACLU legal team prepared as if the burden were on them.
“The evidence before the court is that Major Margaret Witt was an exemplary officer. She was an effective leader, a caring mentor, a skilled clinician and an integral member of an effective team. Her loss within the squadron resulted in a diminution of the unit’s ability to carry out its mission.”–U.S. Federal District Court Judge Ronald Leighton, in his September 24, 2010 ruling, ordering the Air Force to reinstate Margaret Witt.
Remarkably (and tellingly), the government called only one material witness to testify about the threat Margaret Witt posed to the military. He was General Charles Stenner, the head of the Air Force Reserves. General Stenner is based in Georgia. He had never even met Major Margaret Witt and testified that he had never knowingly met a gay person in his life.
To rebut General Stenner, Witt’s lawyers called the people Margaret had actually served with.
“So it wound up being an amazing experience,” Dunne recalls, “like watching an episode of This is Your Life, with people Margie hadn’t seen in years, coming and testifying about her.”
Sitting right behind Witt and her lawyers during the trial were her partner and her parents, the same parents she had feared might reject her when she had to tell them, in 2006, that not only was she a lesbian but that her story, because of her lawsuit, was going to be in the news. A lot. Not only did her parents embrace her, but vans were needed to handle the number of church members who wanted to be present in Judge Leighton’s courtroom to show their support for Margaret Witt and her family.
The trial culminated in a packed courtroom on September 24, 2010, when Judge Leighton, his voice drenched in emotion, rendered one of the most dramatic civil rights verdicts in recent American history.
“The evidence before the court,” Judge Leighton said, “is that Major Margaret Witt was an exemplary officer. She was an effective leader, a caring mentor, a skilled clinician and an integral member of an effective team. Her loss within the squadron resulted in a diminution of the unit’s ability to carry out its mission.”
Her discharge, he ruled, violated her due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and he ordered her “restored to her position as a Flight Nurse with the 446th Air Evacuation Squadron as soon as is practicable.”
As it turned out, “practicable” did not mean soon and, in the meantime, events were quickly unfolding. Ironically, before she could rejoin her unit, Witt was invited to the White House to be present when President Obama, on December 22nd, signed the law repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
After the ceremony, one of the champions of the repeal, Sen. Joe Lieberman, told her that, in his view, it was her story—by putting a human face on the unfairness of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—that had swung the balance in the Congress. Margaret Witt then got on an airplane with her mentor, Grethe Cammermeyer, and just as you might imagine it in the movies, flew home.
On May 10th of this year, Witt announced the final settlement of her lawsuit against the Air Force. That settlement secured her Air Force retirement. She talked about the mission that Grethe Cammermeyer had given her and how that mission was now accomplished. It was, she said, time for her and Laurie and their family to move on to the next chapters in their lives together.
The Question and Answer interview that follows is a compilation of two recorded conversations. The first was recorded on July 6th (the same day, it turned out, that the military was effectively and permanently barred, by court order, from enforcing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) and the second, with Laurie was recorded on July 14th at the studios of KYRS radio.
Margaret Witt: I remember sitting there, feeling very small but looking all around the courtroom. And it was packed. I mean people who had walked in that I had no idea were coming, or that they’d even heard about the case. People from my past, people from the unit long ago. The security people who’d been checking us in every day were standing up in the corners waiting to hear what the judge had to say. Friends and relatives. It was surreal because it was me standing there between my attorneys, standing for a verdict to be read which I was ready to hear but when you hear about a verdict being read it kind of puts you in a strange place.
TC: Laurie what were your memories?
Laurie Johnson: [speaking to Margie]: When Judge Leighton spoke to you, you were standing in front of me. I was sitting in the row directly behind you. And Jim Lobsenz and Sarah Dunne, your attorneys, were on either side. And there came a point where they both took your arms on either side, and they squeezed. And I got a sense that this was good news. Your dad was sitting next to me and I looked at him and he was slightly teary but locked on you. That was a beautiful moment.
TC: Margaret you’ve lived in Spokane since 1996, but you grew up in and around Tacoma, which is where so many of the big moments in this case, good and bad, take place. What were the influences from your upbringing that started you along the career path where you wound up being a nurse?
MW: They’re not just moments in my case, but there are moments that go back to Col. Grethe Cammemeyer in Tacoma and Perry Watkins, from Tacoma. It turned out to be quite the historical town for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
TC: I guess there’s a reason they call it the City of Destiny.
MW: (laughs) For a few of us. Growing up. I was raised in a family where there was always a feeling of equality, even within my family, roles around the house, my parents even did the same thing professionally. I was told I could do anything I wanted to do and I was never told I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl. It was once I got outside the house that I’d hear ‘you’re a girl’ or something, ‘and you can’t do that.’ ‘Nooo. I was told that I can.’ And there was always a real sense of caring. I was raised with a lot of caring, and what was really right, and wrong, and treating somebody differently, in my family, was always wrong.
TC: Your father was a World War II veteran. So you were being pulled toward service, but also being pulled toward medicine. One of the images that you’ve shared that I fixed on was when you were a girl, looking up at the big white plane with the red cross on its tail.
MW: Oh yeaaaaah, the big white plane. Also known as the C-9 Nightingale. We were always going out to Pacific Lutheran University, I think my entire family has attended PLU, and when we would go, we’d go around the back side of McChord Air Force Base. It was always where the air evac crew would park overnight and that plane would sit out there. It was always a game for me, to see who would be the first to spot the plane, if the plane was there overnight. It was really cool. And I never dreamed that I could fly on that plane, let alone from that base, my home base. So, it’s pretty cool.
TC: I think one question that many of us have about your story is who you were and who you thought you were the day before that awful meeting happened in July 2004. What did you think of yourself, and what you’d accomplished and what you were accomplishing, at that point?
MW: Well, the day before I was doing a lot of prep work for my unit. I was actually there (at McChord AFB) working a number of days and I’d pretty much come to a point in my career where I understood a lot about my job and I understood a lot about air evac as a whole, having come from active duty and having gone through it as a reservist. I’d been deployed. And it was nice to be able to have an understanding of the system, the regulations, I felt like I had a real hand on it. I could be, really an asset to my unit, other nurses, it was kind of who I was. I felt like this is what I was meant to do. It was the one place I felt really comfortable in my knowledge base and the point and the mission for what I was doing.
TC: Laurie, you had known Margie for, I gather, three years by that time. Who was that person then, before this major challenge for both of you?
LJ: Margie was, and still is, a person with intelligence, integrity, with humor and a love for life that people were just drawn to.
TC: And I guess the next question is Margie, and Laurie too, what else did you have to become once this happened, given that it was such a major..I guess trauma is not too strong a word, from listening to you describe it…
MW: Yes, I would say it is and then you still go through all those stages. It’s even like a death, it’s a loss, it’s a trauma, it’s a loss. I had to go through a lot of different stages initially even just denial that it was really happening, you know, getting to that acceptance point as quickly as possible and figuring out what I needed to do to move through it.
TC: One of the interesting things, listening to you talk about it, is that almost right away the military was sending you two very different messages. One is, ‘we’re investigating you for discharge’ and ‘oh, by the way, we really need your help, as a leader, getting us ready for the next inspection.’
MW: Oh yeah, that was that very same day. I was looked at by my commander once I had to come back for the end of day meeting with the executive committee. We had a large inspection coming up, it had to do with training and evaluations and I was overseeing that overall for the commander, and responsible for preparing the entire unit. They still looked at me that day and said, ‘oh, Major Witt will get us through that.’ So, yeah, that was a little bit of a double message in one day.
TC: And a lot of dissonance, I imagine, in dealing with those mixed feelings.
MW: There were a lot of mixed feelings.
TC: I think about everything you’d done in your life and your service up to that point, everything that made you into a healer and a woman who wanted to serve her country in this way, and the emotional commitments that involves. Then suddenly the people who hold the franchise of what you’re committing yourself to are suddenly going after you..
MW: Oh yeah. And when you have one minute your commander looking to you to bring the squadron through, and at the same time you know that they’re the ones that make the decisions [to remove her from the unit] it was just… ‘Really, you want me to give you my best?’ (Laughs) ‘Okay.’ It was confusing but I never liked it when the system was unfair to anybody. And not just the military system. I didn’t like it when anybody got picked on. It may have even been not so much from inside of me but just the external fact that this could happen, and I think I just tried to wall off myself, finding a way to fight it and focusing on that.
“He [attorney Jim Lobsenz] was concerned about me and whether I knew what the case would involve. And he made it very clear that I was the focus of his case and everything was for my case. But I needed to be invested in it too. I needed to know that it was going to probably be a ten year plan and I needed to be able to withstand that, and those around me too.”
TC: In terms of the things that motivate and sustain you during this period of time. Life is good, you’re content and then suddenly there’s this tremendous rupture…
MW: It was hard. I think I’ve selectively forgotten. Laurie would probably remember much better. I know there were many days it was hard to get up, and then when I got up I realized what was happening again, and again, like Groundhog Day.
LJ: You stayed in military mode most of the time. And there were points when you would break down. And that’s when you would call Jan [Gemberling] and we’d go over and we’d sit in her kitchen and she’d listen to everything and give you a pep talk and that was enough to sustain us. She was really the one who covered those immediate moments, and she was always there.”
MW: Jan says I don’t remember. And I don’t. Selectively, probably.
LJ: And she [Jan] said it was going to take a long time. She kept telling you that you were going to have to compartmentalize. You were going to have to deal with it and then go back to your reality.
TC: I wanted to go back to 1993 because, as you referred to earlier, this was a year that is important in the story for two reasons. The first is you became—as several federal judges noted—a poster person for recruitment. And this was also the year that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ came into being.
MW: Yeah, it took me a while to actually realize that it was the same year. I just happened to be flying, on active duty at Scott Air Force Base [near St. Louis]. There were a number of people that did photo shoots for public affairs, for them to use the photos however they wanted to use them and, lo and behold, I ended up as what some people call now the poster child, the face of recruitment.”
TC: I’m trying to remember where I was in 1993. I knew Bill Clinton was President. I knew the politics around this were fierce because he had campaigned, in part, by reaching out to the lesbian and gay community for votes, and then getting a real pushback from conservatives who thought he was going to ruin the military. My understanding of it was that now it was going to be safe for gays and lesbians to serve in the military without being messed with, that we weren’t going to intrude into their private lives and screen them for service.
TC: In retrospect, that turns out not to be quite the case..
MW: Yes, it’s quite the misnomer.”
TC: So here you are in 1993, the recruiting poster person, what did you think ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was when you first heard about it?
MW: Well, probably like everybody else did. I mean, eventually everybody thought it was all okay, it had just gone away. I just knew that I wasn’t going to change anything that I did. I wasn’t going to talk about my sexual orientation and, really, nobody could ask me. I was fine with that. I just wanted to do my job.
TC: Looking back on this, this was a divisive and cobbled-together political compromise…
MW: Yeah, I heard it turned out, and I’ve read other things, that it turned out quite differently than its original intent. And then the Congressional hearings put their stamp on it.
TC: But your case, like these other cases that moved forward under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, showed how, when the policy came at you, just how incoherent it was. What were the politicians and other peoples’ misconceptions, that this was going to be okay? That this was going to be fair not just to the old line brass in the military who didn’t want gays in the military, but to gays in the military?
MW: Well, I don’t think they realized that they were undermining the soldier, straight or gay. Because you had to cover things up. You had to lie. And that’s completely not within a military officer. So, it kind of put you in a very strange position where if a straight person knew that somebody was gay, they couldn’t talk. You couldn’t have an open conversation. So they kind of created this dilemma within the units, I think, and within ourselves.
TC: But wouldn’t you also say that it was a law and a policy that didn’t come to grips with the fact that people in the military are actually people too? They’re not just…
MW: Well, yeah, (sighs). Yeah. I mean. (pause). We’re people too and I always say we’re slowly becoming human, and not just, not just a term, or a sexual orientation.
TC: But there are close personal relationships that occur in the military that happen because people are human, they want to be friends,
TC: They want to know, because they work alongside somebody…
MW: I kept a lot of people very shut off and very distant from me, who really wanted to be in my life. And it’s not necessarily that I didn’t want them to be in my life, it’s just that there was a certain place we couldn’t go. So, not being able to be completely open to somebody really creates a barrier and that creates more of a problem than anything else.
TC: In [your] talking about how this unfolded, and this is when you were told to go meet with Major Adam Torem, the JAG [Air Force Judge Advocate General] officer, it didn’t seem like anyone involved in that, or who know that it was happening, was at all comfortable with it. Am I misstating that?
MW: Well, I can only go on the feeling that I got. And I got the feeling that all the way down the line everybody was just following the law, following party lines, and really, wanted to apologize. In fact, some people did. I was just invited back for another retirement at the squadron last weekend (July 9-10th) and people who’d been in the military thirty years, chiefs, came up to me and they said, “you know, this is total b.s., I can’t believe you had to go through it.”
TC: So that was another manifestation of this policy that put people in that position, once they had knowledge, the policy all but required them to act on it, and put them in an awful position.
MW: It put everybody in an awful position.
TC: So it really was corrupting in a way that the politicians and the military men who supported it were just oblivious to..
MW: Yeah, and it just ended up being used against people. Really sad. Really sad.
TC: This happens to you in July, and ultimately—as we reported earlier—in November you’re just flat out asked to leave the unit. I talked to your friend and lawyer Jan Gemberling, and asked her how she remembered this. And she said, “what I remembered is Margie calling me from the parking lot.’’
MW: (laughs) Oh good, because I don’t remember!
TC: That’s her memory and she talked about how angry you were and that was just from the start. Even though you were dazed by what happened, you wanted to fight this.”
MW: Yeah, (choking up). I knew it was that day.
TC: Can you talk about those first steps? And Jan, I guess we should explain, was your neighbor and met you, I gather, when each of you were walking your dogs, and, of course, she’s a well-known lawyer and board member for public television.
MW: And she was pivotal in getting the local AIDS network going.
“She [Retired Col. Grethe Cammermeyer] was kind of watching me struggle with not being able to continue with my unit. I was just floundering because I’d been stopped and I couldn’t do what I was supposed to be doing. And she just stopped me, and she just looked at me, and she said, ‘Major! Your mission has changed. And that was it.”
TC: And she got this call from you and it just so happens…
MW: Well, I didn’t realize it at the time but it just absolutely fell into place because I called Jan, and I really don’t remember when, but it must have been immediately. I do remember, by the time I got home, she said ‘there’s somebody I’m going to call, Jim Lobsenz, I worked with him over twenty years ago, when he was representing Perry Watkins. Haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I’m just going to give him a call.’ And I thought I remembered being home and it wasn’t very long after, she said, ‘he wants to meet you.’”
TC: We should explain who Perry Watkins is for those who don’t know, an African-American soldier from Tacoma.
MW: A very gay African-American soldier from Tacoma.
TC: Who made no effort to hide it…
MW: No, not even when he was drafted, in the sixties. He told them immediately. Told them I think three times, throughout his career.
TC: But they wanted him real bad. And they got him, and then tried to discharge him after they got him…
MW: A couple times.
TC: So it became a very long-running and colorful story and Jim Lobsenz was his lawyer.
MW: And he won.
TC: And it just happened that Jan Gemberling, earlier in her career, in Seattle, had worked in the same law firm as Jim Lobsenz. Tell us about your early conversations with Jim Lobsenz.
MW: I remember I had to fax everything I ever had immediately to him. I scheduled a flight over, a friend picked me up and took me to his office. Big huge building in Seattle (laughs). Many, many floors up. (laughs). It was a very serious meeting. And he wanted to get to know, not only things about the case, but he wanted to know about me. He was concerned about me and whether I knew what the case would involve. And he made it very clear that I was that focus of his case and everything was for my case. But I needed to be invested in it too. I needed to know that it was going to probably be a ten year plan and I needed to be able to withstand that, and those around me too.
TC: One simple question, and maybe I’m backing up just a little bit. Why did you decide to fight it? And why did you think you could fight it?
MW: You know, people ask me that question. And I never thought I couldn’t. It was somebody telling me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl kinda thing again. I hadn’t done anything wrong. You know? Being gay was nothing wrong. I was doing my job. I was very good at my job. So I, no, I never even thought about it. It was really wrong, and it just so happened that I had a way to fight it, and that’s what those thousands before me, very few of us had those people come along to help us. Or my unit members, who are the ones who are the real heroes, who came forward and were willing to sit on the stand in a courtroom, some even in uniform, speaking out against a law. That was pretty brave of them.
TC: The lawyers would wind up making a constitutional argument and winning on it. But before you knew what that argument was, you were determined, just in your gut, this is wrong. You don’t like to be told that you can’t do anything.
MW: Not for a silly reason, if I’m perfectly capable. I’ve been a little bit stubborn that way my whole life. (laughs). I remember I had a writing assignment in first grade, and I think my mother actually kept it, she just gave it to me, and it was ‘you’re going to write today about what does your father do?’ And I thought, ‘well, the same thing as my mother.’ Why wouldn’t I write about what they both do? So I changed everything to they, instead of ‘he’ or ‘he does this.’ So I just grouped it together because they did the same thing. It really bothered me because nobody asked me what my mother did. But I got in trouble, and I had to stay after school.”
TC: For doing that?
TC: But you thought you’d made your point?
TC: One of the things we’ve talked about before is that long before 2004 you began to collect books and articles about Grethe Cammemeyer, Perry Watkins, Leonard Matlovich…
MW:I remember picking up newspapers, even in Europe. I was fascinated by the Perry Watkins story, that somebody could fight against—and this was before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—because I thought it was silly, then, that people couldn’t serve. And so I was fascinated by it, that somebody was finally able to do it, but finally able to succeed. And it went on for a long time. Now, Grethe Cammemeyer’s story, that was right, right going into ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’and that received a lot of publicity. She was very brave but I also had all these connections to these people. You know, he was from Tacoma, she was from Tacoma. She was Norwegian. We both worked at American Lake VA. So I collected those stories because they were so strong in what they did. And they did it with integrity. I didn’t have a chance to watch Perry Watkins, but watching Grethe stand tall and be so strong from day one in answering, even in her Top Secret clearance interview, you know, she answered honestly. And she stood by it, and she never, ever wavered.
TC: She became this almost larger than life figure in the way that she, with great nobility, took on the policy and prevailed too. But the other thing about Grethe Cammemeyer is that you decided soon after this happened to you that you would reach out to her as a mentor. Can you tell us that story?
MW: She was always a hero and I admired her, and yet I never dreamed I would ever be in anywhere near a similar situation. But I knew that I wanted to reach out to her for any kind of guidance, or any kind of experience because I knew nothing about what to expect. And at one point she called me on the phone and I remember when I answered it and realized it was her that I stood up, almost to attention, and everybody in the room thought that I’d been bitten by something. (Laughs). And I just recently shared that story with her too. She just has that command presence, and always will, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. She met me soon thereafter and was kind of watching me struggle with not being able to continue with my unit, continue with what I’d worked half my life for and had trained for. I was just floundering in that because I’d been stopped and I couldn’t do what I was supposed to be doing. And she just stopped me, and she just looked at me, and she said “Major! Your mission has changed.” And that was it. (chokes up). I mean I’ve had to remind myself a couple times but, yeah, it made a big difference.
“I did have to come out to my parents. That was the toughest thing about this entire process. I didn’t quite know how to do it. I didn’t know what to expect. But when I told them what had happened, before I knew it they just looked at me and then my dad was mad, but he wasn’t mad at me! And they were behind me one hundred percent.”
TC: And one of the reasons it made a big difference, as I’ve heard you say, is that you were yanked from that unit from your peers and your friendships…You were on an island.
MW: Yeah, I had to walk out the door. I don’t think people understood. It wasn’t just a matter of losing my career, it was a matter of I had to walk out that door and I still—because I was only being investigated, for like a year and a half, at least—I still could not speak to anyone. I still could not tell. So I couldn’t even tell anybody that I was leaving, I couldn’t tell anyone I was gone. In fact the unit didn’t know for months where I’d gone or why and people were asking the commander. And finally, I was told that during a commander’s call she just said that “Major Witt’s gone and she’s not coming back.” So, yeah, it was very isolating.
TC: So, what Grethe Cammemeyer told you had a big effect and Jan (Gemberling) emerged as a neighbor, as somebody who was there for you. She went on that trip that you and Jim Lobsenz took to Georgia. How important was it to have a friend like her as the months and years went by on this?
MW: She held me up. (voice quaking with emotion.) She was there and she’s still there. I’m amazed at the support and the love that I got.
TC: And I think Laurie you’ve mentioned this too, because she is a lawyer one of the things that she could do is..
MW: (laughing) Translate!
TC: Sit with you both in her kitchen to say these things take a while,
TC: And you’ve got to trust the process. There was, I think, almost two years from the time that you called Jan from that parking lot to when your case finally gets filed against the Air Force. But first you had to do something that you were absolutely dreading and that was the day before your press conference…
MW: Oooh, yes, I had to tell my parents.
TC: What was that day like?
MW: (laughs) Kind of an afterthought. Oh!
TC: I guess to use the expression, you had to come out to your parents…
MW: I did have to come out to my parents. That was the toughest thing about this entire process, probably for me. I didn’t quite know how to do it. I didn’t know what to expect. But when I told them what had happened, before I knew it they just looked at me and, then, my dad was mad (laughs) but he wasn’t mad at me! And they were behind me a hundred percent.
TC: And we should explain that you were so uncertain as to how that meeting would go that there was literally somebody in a car.
MW: Oh, literally. My friend who’d picked me up from the airport because I had to almost keep.. I had taken a little bit of leave but I had to keep going over for Air Force duty. But I hadn’t gotten up the courage to tell my parents. And I didn’t want them to worry. I didn’t know what was going to happen. So it finally came down to the fact that when we were going to file suit and I knew I had to tell them. I remember reading about Leonard Matlovich and I can’t remember whether he came out right before he hit the cover of TIME, or if his parents found out because he was on the cover of TIME. But I knew I had to tell them and I knew (pause) and I wondered, not just how they would react to me coming out but also that it was going to be public. Because it wasn’t just me going on this journey for gosh knows how long. It was all those closest to me too. So, for them not to miss a beat and just say, “you’re going to fight it, aren’t you?”
TC: Because they were finding out two things that day. One was very intimate, about you; the other was you know, it’s going to be on the front page for a while.
MW: ‘Yes, by the way, it’s going to be, going to be in the news. You don’t necessarily have to come…’ Yeah, I think a lot of things were rushing through their heads once they realized it was going to be on the news. My mom was like (talking slowly) “Now, um, I’m not necessarily going to have to do what Ellen’s mom did, do I?” You know because Ellen’s [DeGeneres] mom came out, speaking for HRC.
TC: She wasn’t quite up for that?
MW: She’s like ‘I’m not quiiiiite up for that.’ She did not want to take the spotlight, so I said, ‘no, you don’t ever have to say anything, just knowing that you’re behind me is everything.’
TC: So it was a day that ended as well as you could imagine..
MW: Yeah, and then she wanted me to invite friends over, and we had a big dinner and it was just like this huuuge weight was lifted off of me. I had my family. And they had me, completely, for the first time. So (choking up) the rest was easy, well, you know, relatively speaking. But I had that. Personally, I couldn’t ask for anything more in my life, than that.
TC: So, really, it completed something?
MW: Oh, totally. It totally completed me. Because I had the love of my life and now I had my whole family. And I had a tremendous support system around me, always, and even more so when this started. But there was always a missing piece. And [now] I had it, and I still have it. So, yeah, it was game on at that point. I’m on top of the world now. Come on.
TC: And one of your new relationships that makes the news is with a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge in Tacoma, Judge Ronald Leighton. The case gets filed in his court and you go into his courtroom [in 2006, when the government petitioned to dismiss the case and Judge Leighton ruled for the government.] And I think Jim [Lobsenz] was realistic about your chances in front of this judge at this stage in the proceedings. But still, you had an encounter with him, to meet him in the courtroom and have an exchange with him…
MW: Well it was interesting because, you know, as a plaintiff you just sit there and listen a lot and try to understand, early on in the process. But then he just looked right at me at the end of the day and he spoke directly to me and he was very, very respectful. And it was, it meant a lot that he spoke directly to me, because it was almost like he was still giving me that respect, that, you know. (pause) He respected me.
MW: Yeah, and he didn’t have to do that.
“Somebody finally listened. Somebody had to listen. And he [Judge Ronald Leighton] got it and we were heard. And there are so many people out there who are wonderful service people. I was just the one who got to be heard.”
TC: And life goes on for another two years.
MW: It took a while to get that decision, yeah.
TC: It goes up to the Ninth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit makes what, in retrospect, is a historic decision. They [the judges] don’t end the case but they send it back to Judge Leighton..
MW: I remember getting that call too. I was at one of the schools I was working at, and I get a call and it’s all the attorneys saying, ‘guess what? You won!’ And then, you know, I’m beaming in the school and everybody is asking me, ‘what happened, what happened?’ So we got to tell them. It was interesting to be in such a public place and to hear that news, to have everybody, all the teachers and administrators support me.
TC: What it meant is that—and the way it set the stage for what happened last September—is that it’s not enough for you [the government] to say that she can’t serve because she’s gay, and you can’t just say that she’s a detriment to unit morale, you actually have to prove it.
MW: Yeeeeah. I was looking forward to that day. (laughs).
TC: And what happened when the case came back to Judge Leighton, late last summer, is that even though the government had the burden, ostensibly, they only called one witness. A senior military man from the southeast, I believe, who’d never met you.
MW: Never me and never met anyone gay. I think I got a toaster oven that day.
TC: And Judge Leighton got to meet your peers, because they were called by your lawyers to come into that courtroom and talk about what you meant to them and what you meant to that unit. Maybe it was the legal version of “This is your life” but still…
MW: It really was. It really was. And it was very, very humbling to sit there day after day and have all of these past members of my unit, current members of my unit come through that door. And say nice things. (laughs). My mom actually started to look forward to what was going to happen. And it was just so humbling for me.
LJ: [To Margie] Do you remember the evening when we’d come back to the hotel, and we were staying in the same hotel as all the attorneys, from both sides, and so for a break we’d go downstairs and we’d be sitting and somebody would be walking in that Margie knew from her past and she’d want to stand up and run and hug them but she realized they were going to speak with Sarah [Sarah Dunne, the ACLU lawyer who was assisting with Margie’s case].
MW: (laughs) I’d say, ‘look! so and so is here! I didn’t know they were coming!’
LJ: Just to get prepped for the next day.
MW: And I couldn’t talk to them.
LJ: (softly) Yeah.
MW: It was hard. It was exciting. And it was hard. But it was quite an experience.
TC: But ultimately, we get to that day that a lot of us remember very well. Reading Judge Leighton’s emotional verdict about who you were and what you meant to that unit and why this law was discriminatory, unfair, and unconstitutional.
“There came a point where they both took your arms on either side, and they squeezed. And I got a sense that this was good news. Your dad was sitting next to me and I looked at him and he was slightly teary but locked on you. That was a beautiful moment.”–Laurie Johnson describing the moments when Judge Leighton rendered his verdict in Witt v. Air Force et al.
MW: (with emotion in her voice) And it’s not that I was any different than anybody else out there, that’s serving. But somebody finally listened. Somebody had to listen. And he really got it. That we are valued members of the military, our families value us, our unit members value us, and he [Judge Leighton] got it and we were heard. And there are so many people out there who are wonderful service people, that I was just the one who got to be heard.
TC: And heard so clearly in Judge Leighton’s ruling. This wasn’t him ruling on a legal technicality, this was him ruling about…
MW: The truth.
TC: And then, boom, before you know it, you’re being whisked onto the Rachel Maddow Show….
MW: Oh, yeah, that happened fast. I looked like I was going to pop. (deep laugh).
LJ: That was a fun afternoon.
MW: I just couldn’t stop smiling.
TC: The two of you had been through so much. Your family had, I’m sure, struggled under the weight of this. We look at this in retrospect and, it came out well. And yet you have told me and others that you really bore in mind the thousands of people who left [the military] because of this policy who could not afford to challenge it, or were not in a situation where they could.
MW: And that’s just since ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ That doesn’t count the tens of thousands, historically, over time. It’s like this opportunity is given to me. I’m not going to let anybody down, as long as I can help it.
TC: Before we know it, well, December comes and—relative to how long this case has taken— the Congress passes the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Tell us about that day because, very quickly, President Obama decides to sign it.
MW: Well, (laughs) [I hear] it’s not going to pass and then, all of a sudden, it turns around, you know, [Senators] Lieberman and Snow are pushing it through. Then all of a sudden it really happened within a matter of days. And, then he [President Obama] is going to sign it. All of a sudden things were moving really fast. September to December just seemed like a blip to me and then, in a matter of three days, I’m on a plane to D.C.
TC: Can you share the story of how you got to the signing ceremony…
MW: I was just working on jumping through all the hoops that the military had given me to be reinstated and I was on a plane on my way over to Seattle. I knew that there was going to be a signing, but I hadn’t been invited. I was on my way to meet with my attorneys just to discuss my case and I landed in Seattle, and turned on my phone, and there’s an email from the White House. And I was invited to the signing and I was supposed to respond like two minutes ago. And I was like (gasp). And I couldn’t get the email back fast enough. I said ‘yes, of course, thank you.’ But there I am just getting off one plane, standing in the SeaTac airport. I called Sarah Dunne my attorney at the ACLU [in Seattle] and she had worked in D.C. ‘There’s an eight o’clock flight, if you run, just go right to the gate.’ So I went from one terminal all the way to the end of another terminal and they were just closing the door to the ramp, and I had put down my credit card and I held out my phone with the email on it and I said, ‘please can you help get me on to this plane? (laughs). I have a very important date.’ And believe it or not, they had one seat they had saved kind of for an infant. I felt sorry for the baby but, I would have held her. But they gave me that last seat and I got on and they closed the door, and the next thing you know, I’m flying off to D.C. I had no idea, I hadn’t even thought about where I was going to go. I ended up talking to a couple next to me and we landed and she said, ‘where are you staying?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then I got another email and Laurie had already arranged for a hotel, so I went to the hotel and the next morning, early I went to the signing, and there I was standing amongst giants of the historical battle of gays in the military. It was unbelievable, the energy in the room. And finally. So many people had waited so long and you could just feel the joy in the room.”
TC: It’s just hard to imagine. You have shared what Sen. Joe Lieberman said to you at that ceremony…
MW: He didn’t have to say that, that was kind of him. I went up. I just wanted to shake his hand and I wanted to thank him and he said, ‘you know, it was really your case that really pushed this through Congress. It was a done deal. You put a real face to it.’ And, um, that was pretty amazing to hear [chokes up] that I had really done something. Well, my legal team and my unit members, they had all done something.
TC: But it’s hard not to see that as a realization of the passion that you felt that day in the parking lot, which is that, I know who I am with this unit…
MW: (with emotion) It wasn’t. It wasn’t just me. I mean it was years and years and years of this is wrong. And I think watching the Perry Watkins case, watching the Grethe Cammemeyer case and really feeling their pain and them fighting it, just took me right there.
“Probably eight out of ten people who’ve come up to me are straight people, and they say, ‘finally.’ Even the veterans. It’s the eighty year-old veterans that are sending messages through their kids or coming up to me directly and saying ‘thank goodness, it’s about time.’”
TC: But that was your point. And your point had transcended this. It had basically ruined the law, the way it had affected Judge Leighton and others, and it seems like that is what Joe Lieberman was trying to say.
MW: Yeah, it put to rest the unit cohesion and morale argument (laughs). Finally!
TC: In terms of the law there’s now on the books not just for military cases but for labor law cases the so-called ‘Witt Standard’ which comes from the Ninth Circuit opinion. And it came up in the confirmation hearings of Elena Kagan, the Witt Standard.
MW: (facetiously) Yes, thank you Senator Sessions.
TC: Without going too much into the details of the constitutional argument, it seems like that was exactly what Jim Lobsenz and your other lawyers were aiming to accomplish on the law. And now you have an important principle for the rights of individuals and workers. How does that feel?
MW: I think he’s [Jim Lobsenz] brilliant. He made that happen for all of us, and Sarah [Dunne], and Aaron [Caplan] and Sher [Kung] and the whole legal team, that put all that together. And it’s helped everyone. And it’s not just LGBT people, I mean, I believe it’s helping everyone. I’ve had probably eight out of ten people who’ve come up to me are straight people, and they say, ‘finally.’ Even the veterans. It’s the eighty year-old plus veterans that are sending messages through their kids or coming up to me directly and saying, ‘thank goodness, it’s about time.’ So, their strategy and their belief in who they are made that happen. And I’m talking about Jim, and Sarah, and Sher and Aaron. They made that happen.
TC: You’ve talked so much about how the lawyers that surrounded you and became almost like family in terms of how they supported you, during this ordeal…
MW: “Yeah, and from day one they believed in righting the wrong and supporting me, and they were always there.
TC: The last question I have for you and Laurie comes from something you told me in our earlier conversations, even on the eve of Judge Leighton’s ruling. Something had happened in your relationships and in your life, that I gather was unexpected. Both of you told me that regardless of how that verdict came down that day, that it would have been worth it..
MW: So much good. So much good came out of so much evil, or wrong. So much good. We had already won a personal victory. And having my family, having Laurie and her children, just knowing that you were supported. And being able to have a team that’s so positive behind you, doing as much as we could, but really we had each other, Laurie and I had each other and we had our family, and I had my family. When it comes down to personally, what more can you ask for?
LJ: It was amazing, in the face of trauma, there are people standing there ready to help. If you imagine yourself in a situation like that, you don’t really understand that when it happens, you’re not going to have to be there alone. And, in retrospect, we have met people we wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise and those people changed our lives, we are not the same as we were before.
MW: She says it so much better than I do.