‘Don’t Ask’ Doesn’t Apply in Katrina

Nicole Barbe, a lesbian ineligible for Navy service, serves with valor as New Orleans cop

In the early morning hours of August 29, as Hurricane Katrina was just beginning her assault on the historic city of New Orleans, I was on the phone. One of my closest friends—we jokingly tell everyone we’re husband and wife—was waiting in a hotel room in the city’s downtown as the rain and wind arrived. While thousands of other residents evacuated their beloved city to save their own lives, my friend, Nicole Barbe, stayed out of necessity, not merely choice. She is a New Orleans police officer who remained to protect and serve the city where she grew up and spent much of her life.

Over the past six years, in my work with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, I have met and become friends—indeed, extended family in many cases—with the men and women who seek SLDN’s help after being targeted by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy barring military service by openly gay and lesbian Americans. Not many people are fortunate enough to be able to say that their chosen work—in my case, advocating on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered service members—has resulted in the formation of a second family. But my work with SLDN has done just that.

The most enduring, and closest, of those friendships has been with Nicole Barbe. She is a former Navy petty officer who served her country proudly and, when the military’s gay ban wouldn’t let her serve the Navy anymore, turned in her military uniform for one from the New Orleans police force.

As reports of Katrina’s arrival surfaced, I was packing my luggage, preparing for a week-long vacation in the Big Easy with my friends. The first reports, coming from Barbe’s hotel-room view of downtown and later her survey of the city’s historic French Quarter, were that New Orleans had, mercifully, escaped the full wrath of the storm. Buildings were damaged, yes, but the situation was manageable and certainly nothing that the resilient residents of Louisiana could not overcome. The city I had come to love and regard as a second home was, for the most part, spared Katrina’s full fury.

Then, those infamous levees guarding the city gave way.

On Tuesday evening, the situation was much different. I was talking to Barbe from a police station on the east side of the city. She was there with other officers, guarding the station and hoping for the best. As night descended upon the city, however, the gunshots began. Residents of the city of New Orleans—the men and women she was sworn to protect—began firing on those who were standing by to help. Over the next 24 hours, she stayed with her station, as did her fellow officers, despite a severe lack of food, clean water, or even plumbing.

While enduring the unimaginable misery that the levee breaks brought to the city, Barbe was also enduring gunfire from her fellow citizens. Yet still, she stood guard, doing what a good officer—military or police—does: reporting for duty in even the most dire of conditions.

The next several days were something that even I, getting firsthand accounts, could not fully wrap my mind around. The looting began and the gunfire continued. The medical situation worsened, dead bodies began appearing on the streets, and food, water, and supplies were running out. The city of New Orleans seemed like a Third World city, at best. All the while, Officer Barbe stayed on duty, saying, at one point, “I cannot abandon the guys I work with. We have to stick this out together.”

And they did.

As federal assistance finally began arriving in New Orleans later in the week, Barbe left her station. She and her fellow officers had been fired upon, took in a CNN camera crew they believed was in danger on the city streets, and stood guard at their station. Now, they were going onto those streets to survey what had happened, begin rescue and relief efforts, and try, in some way, to bring order to a city now ruled by only chaos and suffering.

On Saturday, morning, September 3, I saw my friend Nicole on CNN, patrolling the streets near where Lieutenant General Russell Honoré, the military commander in charge of the relief effort, was directing troops. Honoré, who deserves enormous credit for his work to get the situation in New Orleans under control, was working feverishly to direct the troops, secure the city, and feed and rescue the people who remained there. He and his troops, working alongside the men and women of the New Orleans police force, were finally bringing relief to the city.

As I watched my friend on CNN, seeing her for the first time and, literally, jumping up and down at the image of her riding in the back of a military vehicle, it also struck me for the first time that there are gay and lesbian first responders on the ground in the New Orleans, risking life and limb to save lives and limbs. These brave men and women who stood guard in their city and are now serving alongside our nation’s armed forces are not, even today, allowed to serve in those same military units. I wondered if Honoré, so masterfully commanding New Orleans into order, ever thought about the gay men and women of the city’s police force who were serving alongside his troops. My guess is that he did not, because surely he had more important things on his mind.

Which is exactly the point—in a moment of catastrophe and crisis, sexual orientation becomes irrelevant and humanity becomes paramount.

The streets of New Orleans, at some points more like a war zone than our nation’s 23rd largest city, were guarded by men and women who cannot guard our nation. Their sexual orientation made no difference. Their ability to rescue and feed the people of their city did. Their ability to serve was determined by nothing more than their courage, training, and capability. Their commitment to their city took precedent over all else, including their own lives.

It would be no different, I know, on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul.

Yesterday, I received another phone call from Police Officer Nicole Barbe. She is being rotated out of the city for a much deserved, and much needed, five-day break. She’s trying to make her way to Washington, as many of my other friends from New Orleans have done over the past week. Instead of packing to visit the city I’ve come to love so much, the people I love are coming to me. They are a resilient, courageous, and joyful people and I have no doubt they will rebuild their city and make it even better than it was before.

They are the kind of people whose spirit will not be broken by the fury of a storm and whose pride in their city will not be washed away. They are, in short, the kind of people—gay and straight—we should all be proud of. A city, and a country, could have no better warriors than those from the fabled city by the Gulf. They have served New Orleans admirably and it was their humanity, not their orientation, that made all the difference.

Steve Ralls is director of communications for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national non-profit and advocacy group assisting men and women harmed by ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and related policies of intolerance. For more information on that group’s work, visit sldn.org.