www.ambiente.us  MARCH / MARZO 2008

Darren Tells
by Steve Ralls

By the time you finish reading this article, another
lesbian, gay or bisexual service member will be
fired from the United States military.  The Pentagon
issues two pink slips to military personnel every
day . . . not because they are unqualified or unwilling
to serve, but simply because of who they are.  In fact,
since 1993, nearly twelve thousand gay Americans
have been dismissed from the military under the
federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell� law that bans openly
gay personnel from serving.

Under that same law, military personnel are not
allowed to “tell� anyone about their sexual
orientation.  They must remain closeted to their
family, friends and loved ones.  If they deploy
overseas, they must write messages home in code:
changing pronouns, inventing key words, and
finding creative ways to say those three most
meaningful words:  â€œI love you.â€�  If they remain
stateside, they must be excessively careful when
they are off-duty.  Going out for a romantic dinner
with a partner, planning a commitment ceremony
or trying to raise a family can mean the end of an
otherwise promising career.

In short, lesbian and gay service members must
hide who they are 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  They remain largely voiceless and invisible, and while
they fight to defend America’s freedoms, many of those same liberties are denied them right here at

But Army Sergeant Darren Manzella has had enough of that, and he has become a sort of one-soldier
crusade to help end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell� once and for all.

Sergeant Manzella’s journey began last summer, when he received a phone call from
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a non-profit legal aid and advocacy organization that assists
gay troops and lobbies Congress to lift the ban. SLDN had been contacted by the national newsmagazine
60 Minutes about putting together a “newâ€� story on an old premise:  What is it like to live under â
€œDon’t Ask, Don’t Tell,â€� especially during a time of war?  Manzella had a unique twist on the
topic, and a story that would help show the real impact gay service members have on the country’s
national security and the changing attitudes inside the American armed forces.

Manzella first contacted the attorneys at SLDN after an anonymous “tipster� threatened to out him to
his command.  Recalling the core values of the Army, instilled in him when he first enlisted for duty, he
decided to live up to that creed of honesty and integrity.  Sergeant Manzella decided to stay one step ahead
of his accuser and tell his command that, yes, he is gay.

Sergeant Manzella presented his command with proof-positive of his sexual orientation.  He provided the
Army with photos and even videos of him with his partner, and shared emails, letters and other
communications that clearly showed he was, indeed, in a same-sex relationship.

His command’s response?  â€œNo evidenceâ€� that Sergeant Manzella is gay.  The Army told him to
return to work, doing his duties as a medic, and to continue serving our country in uniform.
Relieved that he was now open and honest with his command, Manzella then began coming out to his
fellow troops.  They responded with overwhelming support, undermining tired accusations that openly gay
troops diminish unit morale or cohesion.  In fact, Manzella’s buddies regularly spent time with him
and his boyfriend, even attending a house-warming party they threw at their off-base home in Austin,

All the while, Sergeant Manzella continued his service in the Army as an out, proud gay man and an
accomplished solider who was respected by his colleagues and his command.

Then, in May, the phone call from SLDN’s communications department came:  Would Darren be
willing to share his experience on national television with CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl?  The
story, SLDN was clear, could mean the end of Manzella’s career.  Coming out on national television,
in such a prominent way, would certainly be a violation of the “Don’t Tell� prong of the law and
could result in Manzella being one of two service members to receive a pink slip that day.

But Manzella, no stranger to tough battles after tours of duty in Kuwait and Iraq, accepted the challenge
without barely a concern.  â€œMy decision came from the immense opportunity given to me to supply a
voice for the thousands of men and women in uniform that continue to be silenced by the policy,� he
told Ambiente.  â€œIf anyone were a role model, it would be these individuals – my brothers and sisters
in arms who charge into battle and sacrifice so much of themselves so that our fellow citizens can live in
freedom and security.�

Several months later Manzella - a gay medic
who had finished more than one hundred
12-hour tours on the streets of Baghdad,
providing life-saving medical treatment to
American troops and Iraqi civilians – was
sitting down with Stahl in a hotel room in
Kuwait, telling his story.
The military’s attitudes toward lesbian and
gay Americans, he told CBS, were rapidly
changing.  Manzella was not harassed, and
in fact was fully supported by his fellow
troops.  He was not threatened with dismissal,
but rather retained despite being completely
out to his command.  And he wasn’t eroding
unit cohesion, but saving the lives of his
fellow troops inside Iraq.

His interview was the first time an active-duty, openly gay soldier had ever spoken to reporters from a war
zone.  It was, as SLDN billed the story, “60 Minutes to change history.â€�

By the time the program finished airing on December 16, Manzella, already a hero for his work on the
battlefield, was a hero to a new generation of LGBT Americans . . . and more than a few heterosexual
troops.  But he’s taking his new-found status as a role model in stride, shyly responding to questions
about what his appearance on the show meant to so many people.

“Since the 60 Minutes segment aired in December, I have received a massive amount of e-mails from
individuals both military and civilian thanking me for speaking up against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,
’� he said. “Some have described me as a role model to them but I would like to think that I am
just an example of a person who strongly believes in something and am not afraid to stand up and voice
those beliefs.  I know the stress and pressure that accompanies being a gay man in the military and I
hope that my story proves that this policy is outdated and needs to be repealed.  If I am seen as a role
model, I hope it is for all of the men and women who are afraid to show who they truly are.  I truly believe
that every individual should be proud of who they are and what they believe.�

He acknowledges, however, that when the time is right, coming out can be a powerful tool to change
hearts, minds and, just maybe, a little history, too. “Coming out to family, friends and society as being
gay or lesbian is a very difficult decision for many individuals to make and unfortunately many people, like
myself, have preconceived notions that family society will react negatively to them coming out� he says.
“ In my opinion, I believe that the time to come out is when the individual is comfortable with their own
sexual orientation.  It took me many years to accept the fact that I am gay and even longer to admit it to my
family.  However, once I did that I felt a huge relief from hiding and lying about who I really was and my
family and friends could also feel the relief.  I became extremely proud of who I am and it is an amazing
feeling when you can finally be honest with yourself and be accepted by those who are important to you as
Those important people include parents, and Manzella’s family has been overwhelmingly supportive
along his journey.  His mother, Nancy, accompanied Manzella to Washington January, where he spoke
with reporters about his experience in the Army, and his work to repeal the military’s ban.

“When I came out to my parents I was extremely nervous, although now that I look back over their
reaction I don’t know why I was,� Manzella says. “I told my father first and he told me that he
loves me no matter what and that all he and my mother want is for me to be happy.  From the moment that
I told them I have felt the bond between us tighten.  The same goes for the relationship I have with both of
my brothers and the rest of my family.  Once I was finally able to admit who I truly was and dispense with
the self-doubt, lying and hiding, I felt like a new person.  Today I am a proud, confident man because I
know people love me for who I really am as a person, regardless of my sexual orientation.�

For her part, Nancy Manzella says her son is a better person since he came out, and she blushes with
pride – even occasionally tearing up – when she speaks of her pride for her son and her admiration
for the courage he showed in speaking out on 60 Minutes.  And coming from a close-knit family in rural
upstate New York, Darren understands how fortunate he is to have his mom and dad’s support.

“I am from a very small community and I grew up doing what every other boy did,� he told
Ambiente.  â€œI played football, I worked on the farm, I watched movies with friends.  There were a few
individuals I encountered as I progressed through high school that I thought of as gay or lesbian.  To be
honest I was always intrigued.  At this point in my life I had little concept of the gay lifestyle and was
obviously still in denial concerning my own sexuality, but speaking and interacting with these individuals
and realize that the stereotypes portrayed on television or in the movies were not correct.  These people I
saw everyday were just that, everyday people that I had grown up with my entire life.�

And today, his mom’s phone still rings with words of encouragement and pride from friends,
neighbors, family members and others who share her pride for what Darren has done.  Darren says he is
still receiving that “acceptance and unconditional love that I have experienced from my entire family for
my entire life.�

And the Army, for its part, is showing Manzella a little love now, too.  Since the 60 Minutes segment aired,
Darren, who is on his second enlistment in the Army, has returned home from the Middle East.  He
continues to report for duty every day, and has received orders to transfer to Fort Drumm, near his family in
New York, this spring.

“I have yet to hear a reaction from the members of my command,� he reports. “Each day I go to
work and wonder if I will be called to see my commander but nothing has happened.  My colleagues are
supportive and many are curious as to how I am treated among other Soldiers.  I have received
overwhelming support from peers in the workplace and many of my supervisors.  The amount of
acceptance among my peers and colleagues was surprising to me at first. Now I realize, along with I feel
the majority of the Army, that sexual orientation in the military is not the issue that was previously
speculated or that continues to be enforced by this outdated policy.�

He remains hopeful, however, that he can continue his service in the Army, and is optimistic that the day is
drawing close when other gay Americans will also be able to serve openly and honestly.  â€œI think that
the repeal of this policy is inevitable, it is just unfortunate that it remains such a controversial topic,� he
said in his interview with us. “Equally unfortunate is that the majority of groups and individuals
supporting this policy are not in the ranks of the military and are not members of the same generation of
the men and women fighting in today’s Armed Forces.  I think we have open-minded and accepting
service members in all branches of the military that are honored to be protecting our country and standing
side by side with gay and lesbian comrades who have proven themselves in battle and can perform their
job to their best ability.  A person’s loyalty, honor and integrity make them great, not their sexual

Congress is increasingly on
Manzella’s side.  The Military
Readiness Enhancement Act,
a Congressional bill to repeal
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,� is now
supported by more than 140
lawmakers, including Miami-
area Republican
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
who has been a strong
and outspoken advocate
for lesbian and gay military

Manzella, however, is looking
toward life after the Army as
well.  When his current
enlistment is finished, in
2011, he plans to continue
his work helping others.

“After my career in the Army is complete, I will definitely continue to work for the repeal of the ‘Donâ
€™t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy if it is still in effect,â€� he says. “Professionally I would like to
remain in the medical field.  I have experience as a civilian psychiatric counselor in addition to my
emergency medicine training and experiences in the Army.  I have been in administrative positions since
my return from my first deployment to Iraq, but look forward to getting back into the patient treatment and
care that I have such a passion for.�
Manzella’s 60 Minutes have also inspired passion in others.  SLDN reports that more and more
veterans are joining the effort to lift the ban, and expects renewed attention to the issue in Washington
after the 2008 elections.

And when the day comes that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell� is assigned to the dust bin of history,
it will be in no small part due to the courage of Manzella . . . a dedicated soldier who decided that it was,
indeed, time to tell.


Servicemembers Legal Defense Network  (SLDN) is a national, non-profit legal services, watchdog and
policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel
affected by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and related forms of intolerance.

Steve Ralls
Director of Communications - SLDN
Steve Ralls joined SLDN in 1999 and currently serves as Director of Communications and serves as
liaison to members of the press corps, SLDN spokesperson and works in formulating and implementing
communications policy. He also serves on the steering committee for OUTfront, the LGBT program of the
Nobel Prize-winning organization Amnesty International.
Photo by Judy G. Rolfe

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