BY CHRIS HEATH
On a day to come very soon—September 20, 2011—a serviceman's sexuality will no longer be grounds for dismissal from the U.S. Armed forces. These are the voices explaining what it has been like to be a gay man in the American military over the previous seventy or so years, from World War II veterans in their late eighties to young servicemen on active duty.
1. Life Today as a Gay Serviceman
How we got here: In 1992, many people thought that the discrimination was nearly over. "I remember being in the Castro," says John Forrett (army reserve, 1987–99), "and watching the TV at a bar with some friends, watching Al Gore and Bill Clinton swearing that if they became the tag team for America they were going to get rid of the harassment of gays and lesbians serving in the military." But when the tag team prevailed, they underestimated the resistance to such a reform from a coalition of social conservatives, religious groups, and a large part of the military itself. The consequence, the following year, was a messy kind of compromise that became colloquially known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Gay people were allowed in the military but only as long as they didn't reveal their sexuality; to facilitate this, all members of the military were also prohibited from inquiring about anyone's possible orientation. This was presented as a kind of victory for the forces of progress—you were no longer excluded from serving—but it could instead be seen as solidifying discrimination. Gay people were only acceptable, in effect, to the degree to which they could successfully masquerade as nongay. Still, the whispered message from Clinton and Gore seemed to be that this was only a temporary stopgap while the nervous military took a large deep breath: Trust us, they seemed to imply. We'll be there soon.
It took seventeen years. Seventeen years in which gay servicemen have existed in a paradoxical kind of netherworld. Even when it worked as it was supposed to, it was a very weird way to ask anyone to live.
The moment last December when President Obama signed the bill repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" only marked the start of a period of training and preparation leading up to the final removal of the policy. Servicemen were advised that until then the policy would still apply, and that they could potentially face its sanctions if they identify themselves publicly as gay. That is why the active service personnel interviewed here—whom I met with off base across America and in England or communicated with electronically in Afghanistan—are only referred to anonymously.
Air Force #1 (lieutenant colonel, eighteen years of service): "It's always in the back of my mind. Even as private as you try to keep, you may slip up. Someone may find a Facebook post. See you out and about. So frustrating because, if it happened, there was no ability to assume that your record stood for itself. All of a sudden there was this mystical discovery that made your record go into the trash."
Navy #1 (lieutenant, fourteen years): "There's always been a fear that people would find out and then hold it over you for some kind of leverage. I have seen it happen: 'If you don't do this, I'm going to report you.' "
Air Force #1: "Two of my friends were discovered, both officers—it's a long and arduous process for an officer to get kicked out for being gay. For an enlisted member, it takes about five days. Paperwork is much easier. It's really just 'You do not meet standards.' Within five days, out the door."
Air Force #2 (senior airman, three years): "No one at my job would ever, ever suspect that I was gay at all. I talk about Sam, I even say 'Sam' at work, 'I'm meeting Sam, we're going to do this and that,' and they're like, 'Oh yeah, how's she been?' The worst part is when they start asking me about our sex life and I have to make shit up. But I'm 'That's the woman I'm going to marry, so I'm not cool with you guys talking about my wife like that,' and everybody goes, 'Yeah, you're right.' "
Marines #1 (major, fourteen years): "I'm older, I'm single, and I don't talk about a girlfriend. I don't what we call 'gender fuck,' don't do any of that. So I always feel like there is a bright light shining on me."
Marines #2 (captain, nine years): "Part of what has really allowed me to hide in plain sight is the fact that I don't meet the stereotype. And you're good at your job—a gay person wouldn't be good at his job, so obviously you're not gay. You're a Marine, you don't mind getting dirty, going out into the field and not showering for weeks at a time...and, if you were gay, when you have to shower with all these other guys you'd get all excited. You're not getting excited so you're clearly not gay. I mean, if you want to hide, the Marine Corps is one of the best places to do that, because nobody wants to admit they are standing next to a gay guy. Nobody wants to admit that they have gone to war with gay people."
Air Force #3 (captain, eleven years): "You can be upset about a lot of things—you can be upset that the law was what it was. But I don't think you can be upset about your service, because ultimately it was your choice. You know, we're a volunteer force."
Marines #2: "When I went into the recruiter's office to sign all the paperwork and we got to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' I started reading through it, because this was significant to me. I was raised by an attorney—it's important to know what you're signing. I had made it about halfway through and the recruiter was frustrated with how long it was taking me, and he said, 'Well, basically, are you gay?' I hadn't even joined the military yet, and here he had asked me! If my life had been a movie, that would be the dramatic foreshadowing of what was to come. Of the way it was going to be."
2. One Man's Operation Iraqi Freedom
Many gay servicemen in the modern era—including Eric Alva (Marines, 1991–2004)—have completed long military careers without their sexuality ever being revealed. And therefore few people realized that the first American seriously wounded in the invasion of Iraq during the second Gulf war was a gay man.
When Alva signed up, before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he had to lie on his paperwork. "I knew I was lying," he says. "But I loved what I did, I loved my job, and I didn't want to tell anyone. I said, 'It's going to be my secret.' I knew I was not going to be happy in a way, but I knew this was what I wanted." In 2003 he was deployed to the Middle East, and on March 21 he crossed the border from Kuwait. His unit was part of a huge convoy that stopped outside Basra. Alva got out of his Humvee and went to fetch something from the back of the vehicle. "That's when I triggered the IED. I was awake, my hearing was sort of gone. My hand was covered in blood and part of my index finger was gone. The chaplain was holding my head and I was telling him I didn't want to die. I was taken off a helicopter in Kuwait—it was estimated that I was only in Iraq about three hours—and carried into surgery. I woke up later and when I looked down I saw that the right side of my sheet was flat. I cried myself asleep, only to wake up hours later and see that it's true: My leg is gone."
As he recuperated, he learned about his inadvertent status. "I don't know who designated me to be the first. I was never given a certificate or anything. One-millionth shopper. Now I have the dubious distinction of being the first American injured when the war started. It didn't make it better or worse. I mean, my life was changed forever. I was angry that my leg was gone. Even when I was still in the hospital, hours would go by so slow, and I actually said to myself: 'Who is going to love me now?' I'd never really experienced dating anyone. 'Who is going to love me now? I'm missing a leg.' "
Meanwhile, the media picked up on his story. He went on Oprah. People magazine gave him an award. But nobody thought to pry too deeply into his personal life. After the attention died down, his post-military world began to take shape. He went back to college; he did find a boyfriend. And when, in 2006, the battles over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military and gay marriage in the wider community were simmering, Alva's boyfriend at the time pointed out to him that he did have some notoriety that might be of use. "I finally said, you know what, I'm going to tell my story. The first American injured in the Iraq war is a gay Marine. He wanted to give his life to this country."
Read more at the source.
Long article, but really fascinating (and depressing) read.