Why I stayed.. and why I left
I gave a speech last night about how the military treated gay service members and told a graphic story about one young man’s ordeal. I spoke about how two investigators drove him out to a remote area of the base where there was a small frame house. They took him into the house and down to the basement, and then down another flight of stairs into a subterranean concrete basement, and then into a padded cell with only a table, 2 chairs and a bright light.
The investigators then interrogated this young man as if he was the most vile criminal, calling him names, threatening him, threatening his family, and asking him graphic questions about his sex life. He didn’t even have a sex life! And he was certainly no criminal. He was a Sergeant in the Air Force with a Top Secret clearance.
His “crime”? Questioning his sexuality. All they had on him was a novel by a gay author and a couple of magazines with pictures of nude males. All the interrogators cared about was getting him to admit that he was gay. After threatening him with seizing his parents’ home to pay for his $20,000 fine, he relented and confessed.
Four months later, they kicked him out of the Air Force with an Undesirable Discharge and ordered him to leave that very day. He went overnight from being a bright 20-year-old man with a future in the Air Force, to a civilian with no benefits and nothing but heartache to show for his service.
He wasn’t alone. 114,000 service members were discharged for being gay. I, luckily, wasn’t among them.
I too wanted to make the Army a career. I joined when I was 29 years old. I had worked at other jobs and I was fairly certain that I had found my niche. Therefore, despite the ever-present thought that I could be kicked out at any moment for being gay, I didn’t think it would happen to me. It’s like how most of us never think about dying when we’re young. It’s just not going to happen to us.
To me, serving in silence was the cost of being in a career that I loved. And I did love parts of it. I loved being trained to fly helicopters,
shoot rifles, and even rappel out of helicopters. I loved 30 days paid vacation a year, and lots of travel. I loved physical training and getting more done before 8am than most people do all day. I loved knowing exactly what I was going to wear every day without even thinking about it, and I loved a crisp, starched uniform and spit shined boots.
But there was also a lot not to love. There were happy hours and family days and military balls, and I could never take my girlfriend. I actually had a girlfriend but I couldn’t tell anyone. I had to be careful where I was seen with her and how often. No one was there to support her when I went on temporary duty. We didn’t get any extra benefits because I was supporting her. We certainly couldn’t get married.
So, why did I stay even though my boss would warn me about how it looked that I was seen with a certain person too much? Why did I stay when I heard rumors that there were witch hunts going on? Why did I stay when I realized that it didn’t matter how much sweat, blood, and years you’ve given to your country and they can still kick you out? I didn’t think it would happen to me.
So, why did I leave? At 10 years, it was decision time. Am I willing to do what it takes to someday be a General? Am I willing to sacrifice my self expression for the Army? Am I willing to roll the dice and hope that I make it to 20 years before I get caught with a girlfriend? Do I believe enough in the mission to put my own life on hold. The answer was no.
I got out unscathed… or did I? I thought so at the time, but I know better now. It cost me my relationship, it cost me my belief in myself, it cost me my belief in fairness and equality. It was too high a price to pay.
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