One of the first things you learn at BCT (Basic Combat Training) in the Army is that everyone has a battle buddy. Your battle buddy is the person next to you and is any of your fellow soldiers at any time. The concept is obvious enough: always have each other's backs and never travel anywhere alone. The ideology was greater though– that the Army was a family and everyone’s mission was to support, protect, and fight for one another.
I never tried to hide that I was gay when I arrived at my first duty station. Since the repeal of DADT during the very beginning of my Advanced Individual Training I’d never felt the need. The first man to ask me if I was gay was a higher-ranking NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer). My entire office had been invited to a Military Ball and I’d respectfully declined the invitation. When he pulled me aside to ask why, I considered telling him about the death threats that had been slipped under my door for the last couple of weeks, or the time that I’d stayed up until two in the morning scrubbing my barracks room door and hoping I could clean the word “FAGGOT” off before anyone saw. I considered telling him that I didn’t feel welcome after months of hearing that same word and countless other slurs being thrown around, or because of the jokes that they cracked about one of the openly gay officers. But that felt like concession to the people who were doing these things– the people who could only torment me from the shadows. Instead, I simply informed him that my partner had already made plans for us.
He next asked me if I was gay, and I responded that I was without hesitation. After considering my words he said that I was required to attend but that I wasn’t allowed to bring my partner; he didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to create a scene. Unsurprisingly, all the other men in my office were allowed to bring a girlfriend or wife.
I was never bothered by the extra pushups or cleaning duties. I figured that came with the territory. Instead, it was always the small things that bothered me: the parties in the barracks that I was never invited to or the conversations I was never allowed to hear. I will always remember my entire office being invited to a local bar and the sting of rejection when it got back to me that I wasn’t invited because the host didn’t want a “fag” going to a bar with him. Someone might have thought he was gay. The true pain of being a gay man in the Army was being subjected to hypermasculine misconceptions surrounding my sexuality and the realization that, in a world constructed around the idea that we were all brothers and sisters, I was without allies.
There were those that tried; men and women who--to their credit--made as much an attempt at welcoming the openly gay soldiers as was within their power. Ultimately, they each fell victim to the hypermasculine trap– a trap that had been laid at the very top of the military’s hierarchical structure and was unlikely to be undone by one or two progressive lieutenants. What was interesting to me was the fear everyone seemed to have about gay men. It was never that I was gay but rather that they feared being seen as gay themselves. It wasn’t that they cared who I slept with, but instead feared having to endure the same ostracism that I was subjected to daily.
It took time, and an inner fortitude I’m not actually sure was strength so much as sheer stubbornness, for me to find a way to navigate this world and survive. It came in the form of the most flamboyant gay soldier I have ever had the pleasure of laying my eyes on. He had more swish in each step than all the drag queens of RuPaul’s combined, and twice as much sass. None were safe from his sharp wit and he had just enough rank to make him noticeable. I studied him for the longest time and realized that he too was set apart from the rest of the soldiers. The difference was that he wouldn’t allow himself to be segregated by them. If they sat at a table during chow he would sashay up to them and demand a seat. To be fair it can be hard to say “no” to a six foot four, black man who outweighs you by at least forty pounds and has no qualms erupting into a show tune at the slightest provocation. Regardless, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be ignored.
And so… neither was I.
I didn’t have his flamboyance but I still had the availability to be visible. I stopped using neutral terms like “partner” and instead would say “boyfriend” unflinchingly. I made an effort to be successful outside of work and engaged with the community in ways that my fellow soldiers were unable to do. I learned to speak up whenever someone tossed out ignorant slurs, and didn’t shy away from honest discussions about who I was. If someone wanted to ask me what it was like to be gay, I wanted to be honest and open.
Transparency and visibility became my sword and my shield.
I left the Army after my initial enlistment, and there are days when I miss it. I miss the training, days out on the shooting range, and the important work I was doing as an analyst. Despite the environment, the threats, and the outright disdain I will always be a soldier. No matter what politicians or die-hard conservatives think, the military was never a social experiment for me; it was catalyst that changed my life for the better. I only wish that it had felt like the family I was always told it was supposed to be.