‘I will be that voice’

Air Force major at center of landmark court case speaks at Lane

Anna C.K. Smith // The Torch
Major Margaret Witt pauses and reflects on a comment made by an Army sergeant about the disparity between the ways gays and lesbians were treated in the US military. A couple dozen people attended Maj. Witt’s appearance as part of the Lane Speaker Series.

13,650 members of the U.S. armed forces were discharged in the 17 years that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was official military policy, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. One of them was Major Margaret Witt, a highly-decorated flight nurse and Iraq War veteran whose face appeared on Air Force recruitment posters in the 1990s.

Like a true soldier, however, Maj. Witt didn’t stop fighting.

On April 5, Maj. Witt visited Eugene as the latest guest of Lane Community College’s Speaker Series. She shared the stories about her youth, military career and how her civil rights case changed her life and the lives of thousands of other soldiers. Maj. Witt also warned the audience to be vigilant about the rollback of LGBTQ protections at the military, state and federal levels.

Maj. Witt, now retired, became an icon of the LGBTQ civil rights movement when she sued the Air Force after being suspended and discharged in 2004. The lawsuit received national attention as it made its way through various circuit courts and appeals, eventually leading to Maj. Witt’s reinstatement to the Air Force with full benefits in 2011. That same year, the Obama administration repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, paving the way for openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals to serve in the armed forces. Maj. Witt was invited by the administration to attend the signing of the repeal.

“I didn’t get the pen,” Maj. Witt recalled, referring to the presidential practice of giving the pen that signs a bill to guests at signing ceremonies. “But I did receive a copy of the actual bill that repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Instead of a traditional podium speech, Maj. Witt opted for a more intimate conversational-style event, facilitated by KLCC reporter Tiffany Eckert. Roughly two dozen people — including Maj. Witt’s wife, Laurie — attended the event, which added to the intimacy of the evening.

Throughout the evening, Maj. Witt gave detailed accounts of the experiences and obstacles that eventually led to her landmark court case. Even before being outed, she acknowledged that being a woman in the military presented its own hurdles.

“All my life, I was told I could do anything, then suddenly I couldn’t because I was female,” Maj. Witt said. “And they never gave me a good enough reason. Give me a better reason to not do my job.”

She explained how watching members of her church and school community become ostracized after coming out to their families opened her eyes to the hostility that many LGBTQ people face. As a result, Maj. Witt didn’t reveal her sexuality to her parents until the night before the press conference announcing the lawsuit.

“I told my parents I was being discharged because I was a lesbian, and my dad said ‘Well, you’re going to fight this, right?’” Maj. Witt said. “After that, I knew I could do it. I had Laurie, I had my parents. Bring it on.”

Having the support of her family and loved ones was critical to Maj. Witt’s ongoing fight, but she also acknowledged the fellow service members who stood up for her during her court battle.sexuality for the Air Force repeatedly called members of Maj. Witt’s unit to the witness stand, attempting to prove that her sexuality was bad for unit morale. All of them had nothing but glowing testimony about Maj. Witt’s service.

“They were my heroes,” Maj. Witt said, her voice wavering with emotion. “They were there for me, and they were there for all of us.”

Maj. Witt also cited Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer, who successfully sued the Washington National Guard after she was discharged for being a lesbian in the early 1990s, as a personal hero.

“She was Norwegian, a Washingtonian, and someone I looked up to,” Maj. Witt, who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, said. “She handled herself with dignity.”

When asked about the Trump administration’s looming ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military, Maj. Witt became visibly animated and came to their defense.

“We need to protect the honor and service of transgender members of the military,” Maj. Witt said. “I have the opportunity because those in the military cannot have a voice, they cannot fight from within. I will be that voice. I’ve got their back, and I’ll speak out.”

After the event, Maj. Witt spoke privately with students and faculty members, signed copies of her 2017 memoir “Tell,” and snapped a few selfies with attendees.