By Timberly Ross
Jene Newsome played by the rules as an Air Force sergeant: She never told anyone in the military she was a lesbian.
The 28-year-old’s honorable discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy came only after police officers in Rapid City, S.D., saw an Iowa marriage certificate in her home and told the nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Newsome and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against the western South Dakota police department, claiming the officers violated her privacy when they informed the military about her sexual orientation. The case also highlights concerns over the ability of third parties to “out” service members, especially as the Pentagon has started reviewing the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
“I played by ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,'” Newsome told The Associated Press by telephone.
“I just don’t agree with what the Rapid City police department did. … They violated a lot of internal policies on their end, and I feel like my privacy was violated.”
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has come under renewed debate after Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a sweeping internal study on the law earlier this year.
As the review is under way, officials were also expected to suggest ways to relax enforcement that may include minimizing cases of third-party outings. In particular, Gates has suggested that the military might not have to expel someone whose sexual orientation was revealed by a third party out of vindictiveness or suspect motives.
The Rapid City Police Department says Newsome, an aircraft armament system craftsman who spent nine years in the Air Force, was not cooperative when they showed up at her home in November with an arrest warrant for her partner, who was wanted on theft charges in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Newsome was at work at the base at the time and refused to immediately come home and assist the officers in finding her partner, whom she married in Iowa — where gay marriage is legal — in October.
Police officers, who said they spotted the marriage license on the kitchen table through a window of Newsome’s home, alerted the base, police Chief Steve Allender said in a statement sent to the AP. The license was relevant to the investigation because it showed both the relationship and residency of the two women, he said.
“It’s an emotional issue and it’s unfortunate that Newsome lost her job, but I disagree with the notion that our department might be expected to ignore the license, or not document the license, or withhold it from the Air Force once we did know about it,” Allender said Saturday. “It was a part of the case, part of the report and the Air Force was privileged to the information.”
He said his department does not seek to expose gay military personnel or investigate the sexuality of Rapid City residents.
Allender said the department was finishing its internal investigation and has determined the officers acted appropriately. They have not been placed on leave during the investigation.
Newsome’s partner is currently out on bail on one felony and three misdemeanor counts of theft stemming from an incident last year, court officials in Fairbanks said. More information was not immediately available, and Newsome said she didn’t know the status of the case and didn’t provide more details about it.
In the complaint filed last month with the department, ACLU South Dakota said police had no legal reason to tell the military Newsome was a lesbian and that officers knew if they did, it would jeopardize her military career.
Newsome, who was discharged in January, said she didn’t know where the marriage license was in her home when police came to her house on Nov. 20 and claims the officers were retaliating because she wouldn’t help with her partner’s arrest.
“This information was intentionally turned over because of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and to out Jene so that she would lose her military status,” said Robert Doody, executive director of ACLU South Dakota. The ACLU is focusing its complaint on the police department, not the military, and Newsome said she and her attorney have not yet decided on whether to file a lawsuit.
“The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ piece is important and critical to this, but also it’s a police misconduct case,” Doody said.
More than 13,500 service members have been discharged under the law since 1994, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is lobbying for its repeal. Kevin Nix, communications director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, couldn’t speak about Newsome’s case, but said when “someone is outed by a third party, which it sounds like this was, or by a police officer, then, yeah … I’m not surprised the person was discharged.”
Though rare, third-party outing can be especially damaging to service members who wanted to keep their sexual orientation hidden, experts say.
Even though 80 percent of “don’t ask, don’t tell” discharges come from gay and lesbian service members who out themselves, third-party outings are “some of the most heinous instances of ‘don’t, ask, don’t tell,'” said Nathaniel Frank, a research fellow with the Palm Center think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a New York University professor.
Newsome, who is originally from Harrisburg, Pa., is currently on the road, driving to Alaska. She said she’d been looking forward to the time when the military would alter its policies regarding gays and lesbians. But that change didn’t come in time to save her career.
“I felt like it was getting close,” she said. “I was really hopeful.”