“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Too Late

Renee Farster mourns her missed opportunity

The historic Senate vote Saturday to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came 11 years too late for Wharton grad Renee Farster.

As a fourth-year Midshipman in Penn’s Navy ROTC program in April 1999, Farster stood at attention and handed a letter to her commanding officer. It began: “I write to inform you that I am a lesbian.”

He told her she had a lot of heart, but his hands were tied. She was immediately put on probation, then had to endure an “excruciating” military review panel comprised of seven men and one woman – none of them her peers, she says.

The final ruling, six months later, was an honorable discharge. “Honorable,” she says, “because they couldn’t prove I had actual sex.” Had she been dishonorably discharged, she would have owed the Navy more than $110,000 in tuition, she says.

For Farster, that was little comfort. She wanted to be an officer. Minus the mendacity.

“I had hoped that I could be truthful and still serve,” she says. “I believe in the core values of the Navy – honor, integrity, courage. Even now, I still wonder if I did the right thing. When fellow Midshipmen served in Iraq, I felt I should have been there, too.”

A marketing major from outside Pittsburgh, Farster, 33, opened her own spa in Boston in 2005. Her staff has grown to 25 from eight. The same week as her spa opening, she and her girlfriend, Nathalie, a fashion designer, were married. They are trying to start a family.

On Saturday, Farster was home alone, baking macaroons, when she heard about the vote on NPR. She began to cry, “for those who served in silence, and those whose service was silenced.” She cried a little for herself, too.

She wasn’t good enough for the U.S. military, but she had shot an M16, piloted a T-34 jet, served on the U.S.S. Yorktown – one of four women among 600 men. (The women’s shower was a converted utility closet. When one woman showered, another stood guard.)

The argument that openly-gay troops would hurt unit cohesion is a crock, Farster says. “When you’re out there [in combat], you’re not looking to date somebody. You’re looking to stay alive. It’s about completing the mission and following orders.

“So many of these decisions are made by a generation who don’t know gay people. The people actually serving, and dying, are kids, 18 to 22. They’ve grown up in a different culture.”

Sometimes Farster finds herself fantasizing about the life she didn’t have. At the same time, she loves the life she has. Had she stayed in the military, she wouldn’t have met  her wife or had her own business.

“Still,” she says quietly, “it would have been nice to have the choice.”