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Why I’m Staying in the Closet: One Gay Soldier on the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Several weeks ago, a military chaplain came to brief my battalion, via PowerPoint presentation, on the Department of Defense’s official stance on "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," the policy that for the past 18 years has barred soldiers from identifying as gay, and whose repeal will officially go into effect today, September 20, 2011. As the chaplain stood at the front of the auditorium, a fellow soldier leaned over to me and whispered, “There goes the fabric of the country.” I didn’t acknowledge his comment. He didn’t know I was gay, and I didn’t think this was the time or the place to tell him. Besides, I was too busy listening.

I had known the presentation was going to be uncomfortable. It wasn’t that we had just completed a field training exercise that morning, and had barely had any time to clean ourselves off. It was the fact that, despite all the debates and decisions in Washington about the merits of repeal, this was the first time that we, as soldiers, were being told what was going to be asked of us. I had spent the last several years living in a constant state of caution, the consequence of the old policy. Now we were being confronted with the consequences of the new policy—which, for many, meant a confrontation with their own prejudices and fears.

THE DAY THAT "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" was repealed, around six months ago, I was alone in my car on my way to visit family. The U.S. Senate was scheduled to vote on the issue, and it was still unclear what the outcome would be. As I tuned the radio to follow the debate, I doubted anything would pass. But as I listened to the votes being counted, I began to realize that history was being made: More than that, I realized my life had been profoundly changed. As the final votes were tallied, I nodded and sighed a “well done.” I savored the thought of soon walking through my neighborhood with my partner without fear of getting “caught.”

But until the chaplain showed up to deliver his PowerPoint presentation, those remained idle thoughts: Neither I nor my fellow soldiers had received any official information about the pending appeal. In the interim, most soldiers didn’t much dwell on the change of policy. New variations of the ubiquitous gay jokes were passed around, of course: the first visible effect of the repeal was a constant hum of teasing. “Joe, don’t worry—you can come out soon enough”; or “You don’t have to pretend anymore.” And I still heard the word faggot, or the phrase “that’s so gay” routinely used as insults. But no one was expecting that a change in "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was going to have immediate effects on that kind of language.

The chaplain’s bottom line was simple: As professionals, we were expected to behave respectfully toward all people, no exceptions. His presentation started by describing practical, administrative changes, but after that came the interesting part—the hypothetical scenarios, the “what-if” questions that are so common to military briefings, and that are used to vividly explain proper protocol.

One instructive example was that of a soldier who comes to an officer because he is upset that he has to shower with another soldier who identified as gay. The PowerPoint slides matter-of-factly explained how the soldier can go about requesting a separate shower time. The other examples similarly used the anodyne language of military bureaucracy to express what is actually a profound cultural change: While the chain-of-command must accommodate separation, it’s the soldier who is uncomfortable with gayness, not the gay soldier, who will now be segregated from the group.

After presenting a number of such hypotheticals, the chaplain invited the group to join the discussion. What happened next was what I expected: A lot of intense debate and discussion, much of it challenging the repeal itself. The first comment came from a soldier who said that he was uncomfortable showering with a gay person: “I mean, I am morally opposed to it and now I am being forced to deal with it?” Heads nodded. Another chimed in, “If we separate men and women based on sexual attraction, shouldn’t we separate men who are attracted to other men? It only makes logical sense. I don’t want some guy who is attracted to me in the shower with me.” (As I heard that, part of me couldn’t help but think, “Sergeant, trust me, showering together will be no pleasure cruise for either of us.”)

One officer defended the change saying that it was time to end discrimination as the Army had done several times in the past, “like we did with the integration of black people.” Almost immediately, a soldier stood-up angry that being black was compared to homosexuality: “Black is not the same as homosexual,” he shouted. There were many such instances of miscommunication. I was heartened to hear one captain offered a defense of the repeal—“These are people, too,” he told the group—but it was less comforting to hear the grumbling that followed his comments.

IN TRUTH, none of the comments I heard that morning bothered me much. It wasn’t comfortable, of course, to see my friend muttering agreement with the soldiers who were angry at the change in policy. Nor was it fun to hear that my identity could make others feel “uncomfortable,” much less that it was “morally repulsive.” But I had heard that kind of thing before, and it didn’t surprise me to hear it now. After all, I had a decade of intense self-scrutiny and a lifetime of thinking on the subject behind me. Many other soldiers, on the other hand, have never previously had to complicate their thoughts on the subject: Never forced to grapple with these questions, they simply accepted that being gay is wrong and that gay people have no place as soldiers—at least not soldiers who were openly gay.

I did wonder whether my fellow soldiers would be more accepting if they learned of my own situation. Certainly, if they knew I was gay, it would force them to acknowledge that not all the stereotypes are accurate: The greatest fears of those around me seemed to stem from the preconceived notion that gay men would not be up to the task of soldiering. Soon enough, they will learn that all soldiers, gay or straight, are professionals who have signed up to serve our country and adhere to the values which make the military great. I think most will eventually discover that some of the most professional and dedicated soldiers they have known are gay.

That said, I am in no rush to tell everyone around me about my sexuality. What bothered me about "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was not the anonymity, but the constant fear. Finally, I can rest easy at home: I can slip into civilian clothes and go about my life as others do, without having to watch constantly over my shoulder. I suspect that many gays who are serving, are like me. We will continue to do our jobs, as we are asked, and may or may not come out. We don’t crave a big announcement, nor do we want to parade our private lives in public—soldiers, gay or straight, simply tend to be more reserved than that.

Of course, as I prepare for a potential deployment, I am thankful that this time around I don’t have to fear opening up to those with whom I serve. I can be myself. I can serve my country. I can soldier on just as everyone else. Some I will tell, eventually. And then again, maybe not at all.

At the end of the briefing, as I was still digesting what I had just heard, a soldier from my unit leaned over and said, “I just don’t think this change is going to be a big deal, do you?” I shook my head as he continued: “I just don’t think anyone cares.” He wasn’t trying to deny all the grievances we had just heard. He simply meant that for a military so used to receiving orders and executing, the repeal would be a blip on the radar—that this, too, shall pass.

I then grabbed my M4 rifle, put my body armor back on, and began the slow walk back to camp. Soon, I ran into my battle buddy. He lit a cigarette. As he smoked it, I stood alongside him. He made no mention of the briefing. Neither did I. It was only a minor distraction from the training that remained in front of us.