(A powerful story, thanks for sharing! – promoted by lowkell)
I have been an activist most of my adult life. Fundamental unfairness has always rubbed me the wrong way. DADT would be my first test of fundamental unfairness. Did I respond honorably to this challenge? Maybe, maybe not. You can decide.
One of my first forms of activism was in 1996 and was to violate the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that was then in full effect. I have a family now and this isn’t something I share with many people, but I was one of the thousands of people affected by this policy.
This is my story.
While underway in Hawaii, I had time to reflect on my short time in the Navy and some of my experiences to date which had prompted me to start writing and keeping notes of my thoughts. That writing was really just a mental exercise to help me process events that unfolded months earlier.
Boot-camp and the enlistment process was where my Navy experience first began – where all the gays are suppose to be screened out.
On day one at boot-camp, they told everyone in the room “if anyone here is gay, they need to let us know now – it’s your last chance to tell us if you’re a fag or not”. Statistically there were enough people in that room that more than a few men and women were gay, but nobody said a word. I wonder how those words secretively stung some, and made others laugh out loud. Who knows – maybe the gays laughed the loudest in attempts to keep their cover.
One of my first Navy experiences after boot-camp was hanging out with some of the other sailors during A-school and one day we decided to visit some cliffs around San Diego off of the beach.
It was a nice day and we were perched atop the cliffs looking down at was obviously a gay-friendly beach (to our surprise). I don’t remember the precise chain of events that unfolded and in what order, but the person who drove us there also owned a bb-gun and soon took a shot at one of the male couples below.
I’m not sure if anyone was hit on the beach below, but we did get some dirty looks and quickly drove away. Did I chuckle or get some joy out of this event? I honestly don’t remember, but I would like to think that I didn’t.
I was 18 at the time and didn’t spend much time pondering what it meant to be gay, or why so many people thought it was so terrible that pot-shots with a bb-gun weren’t out of the question. I was more interested in what Tijuana club I would be legally drinking at on the weekend at age 18.
Soon after that event and back at A-School, two of the sailors in our class were obviously affectionate for each other and it didn’t take long for these guys to become victims of harassment themselves. They received threatening notes, had their rooms ransacked, and subject to a variety of cruel pranks. We only have last names in the Navy, but strangely I remember his first name and not his last. Ben. His companion? I don’t recall his name. But Ben was friendly and treated everyone with respect. That respect and friendliness was not returned.
And my final memorable experience on the “gay” subject was when my step-dad at the time told me the only thing he couldn’t forgive he for was if I was gay. Ironic that later in life I forgave him for molesting my sister and putting me in a situation where the Navy seemed to be my only option – by going to prison and leaving my mom to support us all…but that’s another blog.
So the stage was set. These were formative experiences and based on them I had three directions I could go. I could embrace hatred of gays, remain neutral, or oppose discrimination. Hating gays would be an easy choice because everyone else around me seemed to hate them and that path would probably solidify my career in the Navy.
The second choice was to sit on the fence and just keep my mouth shut. That is probably the choice most people take today.
Obviously I decided to see what was behind door number three. How would the people who I thought were my friends respond if they knew I opposed mistreatment of gays? It didn’t take long to discover the answer to that question, and it happened quite by accident.
So continuing what would ultimately be my last trip at sea in uniform, I had some free time to type my thoughts on a computer that we shared – saving the files of course on my personal disk. I even drafted a letter to the Navy telling them I was gay and that I opposed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy”. My future changed dramatically the moment I hit “print” on that nice day off of the Hawaiian Islands.
There were two problems. First, the damn printer wasn’t working. It was connected through a switch to the printers, and you could manually swap between them using this switch. No matter what setting I chose, I couldn’t get that document to print. The second problem was that I wasn’t really gay – I just opposed the Navy discriminating against gay people. I had more work to do on this draft before sending it anywhere but no time to do it, so this would need to wait.
My lead petty officer showed up and informed me that we were getting ready to head back into Pearl Harbor and I was needed on deck. I left that room relieved in a way that the document wouldn’t print and headed out as instructed to the fantail of the USS Ingersol (now an artificial reef). I thought I had better think this through before I get myself into trouble so I was happy about my printer troubles.
I soon found out that I was already in trouble when the Master at Arms arrived to escort me to see the Master Chief. That pesky print switch – well it was working just fine. Unfortunately the printer it was sending print jobs to was in another space. I’m not sure how many copies I actually printed because I hit print several times, but it wasn’t long until I found out first hand what it felt like to be “gay in the Navy” (but still not really gay). “Doh!!!”
I wasn’t even asked if I was gay. I was asked if I authored that document, and the answer was “yes”. Strange thing about military law as my military lawyer later explained to me is that saying “I’m gay” is no different than having gay sex – it is considered a “homosexual act” by the military. So by admitting to writing that paper, my fate was sealed. I was to leave the Navy soon after with an honorable conditions discharge and a RE-4 code (meaning you can’t come back).
After some harassment, threats, fear of being tossed overboard, and the typical poor treatment by other sailors I lost my will to fight and stay in the Navy. I allowed people to think whatever they wanted about me and accepted that my Navy career was over.
Mostly, I was just scared that I would be killed or violently beaten. Military culture effectively indoctrinates young, impressionable people into hate. I had no plans of being on the other end of that.
So although DADT is now officially over I believe the fight has just begun. Some Republicans will want to re-instate the law, and the culture of hatred is still part of our military as well as our nation. What really needs to be broken is that culture.
Although some people say they are returning, I’m not sure how they will get around the RE-4 code.
Will they issue us new discharge papers? Will those of us who didn’t get fully honorable discharges have those upgraded? What about military benefits that we would have been entitled to, like the GI bill?
There are still many questions unanswered, but I can say that this is a good day for America. It is a step forward. Let’s continue taking those steps, and make America a place where people don’t need to worry about what color their skin is, what sex they are attracted to, or what their beliefs are.