On April 10th, 2019 I had the distinct pleasure of having an article featured in the “At War” section of the New York Times. Fewer things have ever brought me so much pride or been so deeply personal or profound an experience. Within hours of the essay going live, a flood of emails, messages, and comments began. A few were skeptical or downright disbelieving. Some shared their own experiences. Others thanked me. A handful begged for me to repent my sinful nature.
Of all the emails and comments I received, the ones that stuck out in my mind were those asking questions; why had I chosen to serve; why hadn’t I quit; what did it mean to “serve openly”; and would I do any of it again? My essay was created with the military in mind, especially for those in leadership roles. For those responsible for forging and maintaining military cultures, I wanted to share what it was like for me to serve as an openly gay man in the hopes that leaders—whether at tactical, command, or strategic levels—would consider how they might make the military a more inclusive and battle-ready space. Of course, I also wanted to offer my support and visibility to those LGBTQ+ members serving today, whether openly or not.
But now I want to take the time to acknowledge that despite these difficulties, I still have a deep love for military service. And feel, now at a time when military recruitment statistics have begun to stagnate, that the LGBTQ+ community is an untapped resource of talented, driven, and strong individuals that can only strengthen and diversify our military. Any form of restriction, culture of discrimination, or even ambiguous support from leadership only serves to harm our military.
The first question that struck me—almost certainly presented by someone who has never served in the military—was why I simply didn’t “keep my private life private”. This claim stems from the idea the workplace is no space for conversations of religion, politics, or sexual orientation. Yet, the military is not simply a workplace. A soldier does not go to work at nine AM only to return to the privacy of their home at five PM. Rather, they are considered a service member twenty-four hours a day. For younger, unmarried soldiers returning home is returning to a barracks full of comrades. It means having to sign guests in at the front desk with a reason for their visit. It means requesting permission whenever leaving a certain vicinity on weekends. It means mandatory attendance at military balls and “team-building” social functions. For many active duty service members, the military isn’t simply their day job, it’s their way of life.
For LGBTQ+ soldiers that means making a decision. Either honesty—writing that it is their boyfriend visiting, saying they are going to “Gay Pride” for the weekend, responding “Yes, my boyfriend is well, thanks for asking”, and inviting their partner to social functions when a chain of command encourages familial participation—or deception. It seems to me that those who believed in DADT ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell"), those that now want LGBTQ+ individuals to remain silent about their sexuality, are those that want soldiers to operate in opposition to the military’s values and ethics. For me the only option was to be honest; to be open.
My favorite comments and messages were from those that happily reported they’d never faced persecution at their unit, or that they had but reported it to leadership they’d felt would be supportive and had positive outcomes. But within those messages, a pattern emerged–– one which certainly doesn’t apply to all, but enough that I took notice and perhaps which I’d always known but only just realized. Those service members that had come to their unit already openly gay found they had more difficulties than those that hid their orientation until they’d forged bonds. Despite how encouraging the majority of these stories were, this pattern was troubling. Because it indicated that a soldier’s sexuality might be predictive of the chances of their immediate successful integration into a unit. In a culture built around how well a soldier can function within a unit, why should sexuality matter?
Some have asserted it was only my unit that had an issue. Some have claimed it was specifically Fort Drum which had a negative culture. But to shovel all the blame onto one unit, or one military installation, is unfair. Rather, I see my experiences as reflective of a cultural issue within the military as a whole. There are those that believe that women, gay and bi individuals, and transgender folk have no place in the military. President Trump’s recently confirmed ban on transgender service-members is proof that this culture not only exists but is actively working against those who want to serve their country.
Pulitzer Prize winner, veteran, and New York Times writer-at-large, C.J. Chivers, recently penned a letter to the readers of “At War”. In it, he presented his own question: “can we love the military and still recognize how it is failing?”. In answer to his question, Chivers references an essay published by Cristine Pedersen on April 4th, who wrote that “You can simultaneously love an institution and recognize how it is failing. The truest form of commitment is perhaps to bring these failures to light.” My New York Times essay was an attempt to reveal the ways in which negative or discriminatory culture could fail soldiers.
When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed in 2011 many thought it would symbolically end the discrimination LGBTQ+ individuals faced. I, naively, was one of those people. I believed at nineteen that somehow such a rallying display of support for the LGBTQ+ community, on part of our then Commander and Chief, was all that was needed to defeat the legacy of pain brought on by DADT. During the first few months of my military career, I was lucky to see that envisioned military made real. One where it truly didn’t matter what religion, gender, or sexual orientation a soldier ascribed to, as long as you could “shoot, move, and communicate”. There was a true sense of camaraderie in which I was encouraged and welcomed by my peers. I hold on to that vision, as well as the memory of those soldiers in my unit—including those soldiers serving in my intelligence office—that made every effort to support me, as standard markers for the culture that I envision for our military. One in which service and capability are simply enough.