The road to repeal

In the past week and a half, coming out and talking to people openly has brought something into sharp focus: most people really don’t understand the significance of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal on Sept. 20. While it’s true nothing really changed about who we are and what we do in the military, it still makes a world of difference for those of us who had to hide under the old policy.

So, here’s the story of my life – the hidden story that might explain exuberance of those liberated by the DADT repeal, myself included.

I’ve known about my attraction toward men for most of my life. I honestly can’t remember a time where I wasn’t intrigued by the male form. Spending most of my life with my mother and older sisters made men a relative unknown to me. I finally began to admit to myself that I was bisexual in late high school, but I never came out to anyone until I was almost 20 years old. Even then, I had only told a select few friends and my two sisters. Out of irrational shame, I asked them to keep it a secret.

I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force not too long after admitting to my own sexuality. I was at a low point in my life for a variety of reasons, and I needed change. I never had a boyfriend, and was still relatively closeted, so I didn’t think living under DADT was a big deal. I entered active duty on June 8, 2004.

At the time, basic training was my biggest worry. Not only was I not a very physically fit person, but I knew there would be open showers. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an appealing thought to me. I had grown up in a relatively conservative family when it comes to nudity, so being naked in front of strangers was unnerving in its own right. The added element of attraction to the male form added to this discomfort, greatly increasing my apprehension towards basic training in general. I was downright scared of being discovered and kicked out, but somehow I persevered. Basic training was my own personal hell, and I was thankful when I finally graduated.

Tech school was better. I have a natural passion for photography, so I took to the basic still photography course at the Defense Information School like a fish to water. I slowly gained a sense of self-respect I lacked before the military. I was still questioning my sexuality, but now in reverse. I had yet to have a relationship with a man, so I wondered if maybe I was straight with some weird random attraction to men. I asked myself if I could think of one man that I had met that I could see myself having a relationship with. To my surprise, I realized I could; his name was Chris.

At the time, I didn’t know he was bisexual as well. I just knew he was charming, had some similar interests and was attractive. I began to crush, but knew the horror stories of tech school love, and, for all intents and purposes, figured he was straight. To my amazement, a few months after I arrived at my first duty station, I found out he received the same assignment. Crush turned to silent admiration, and eventually love. When I finally found out he was bi as well, it was a dream come true. I was head over heels and then some.

I was particularly grateful for his companionship during one of my darkest times at Beale Air Force Base. One night, at 11 p.m., all of us Airmen in the dorms were rounded up for urinalysis while senior NCOs went through each of our dorms performing “health and wellness inspections” on each room. In such an inspection, each room is searched with a fine-tooth comb to make sure Airmen are abiding by the rules, and do not have prohibited or harmful items in their rooms. After the inspection, the rooms are meant to be left in the same condition they were left in. However, when I returned, I found a DVD I thought had been well-hidden lying face up in the center of my bed. It was left there almost as if to tell me “we know.”

I was in a complete panic. I thought for sure I was going to get kicked out of the Air Force. Chris managed to calm me down, but I spent the next two weeks convinced my first sergeant would walk through my door at any moment and ask me to follow him to his office. After those two weeks, I formulated a plan to ask my first sergeant about the incident. After testing the water and he finally just asked what was on my mind, I got to the point. He laughed, and reassured me that it was not a crime to own suggestive DVDs, otherwise they’d have to round up all the guys that have lesbian pornographic DVDs as well. I was quite relieved after my talk with him and felt foolish for waiting two weeks to do so.

Eventually, Chris and I became closer. I was still very shy, so it took a while, but he became my first adult relationship. Unfortunately, right at the moment I was at my most vulnerable and gave my heart completely to him, it all ended suddenly and without warning. I had thought I found nirvana, but found one of the icier pits of hell instead.

I was devastated. The greatest love I ever felt had been cast aside as easily as yesterday’s garbage. I should have known that office relationships are never a good idea, but I couldn’t help the way I had felt about him. However, the presence of DADT added a whole extra level of complexity to the situation. People in the office knew we were close, but not that we had been together. I had to keep up a facade that we were still friends to avoid questions I couldn’t answer, and keep my usual happy countenance even though I was screaming in agony inside. I remember many nights spent bawling my eyes out on another friend’s shoulder who knew about us. I was afraid to go to work and see him there, pretending like nothing ever happened between us, good or bad. I think that was the hardest part, his indifference toward me.

Some time passed and I finally had another relationship; this time with a woman. It was a fairly healthy relationship, and it taught me what it was like to have a real relationship in the military. I could bring her to events and talk about her freely. It was a nice change of pace from the secrecy of my previous relationship, if it could have even been classified it as such due to its brevity.

Eventually, I did have another relationship with a man, thanks to an introduction from a mutual friend. This relationship had less emotional depth as the previous, but it allowed me to finally become comfortable with my sexuality and realize that being bisexual was not something to be ashamed of. Sadly, I was forced back into hiding with my feelings in public, afraid to kiss him at a restaurant for fear of being recognized, afraid of some of his roommates in the house he shared who were not as open-minded. Thankfully, people stood up for us when we were afraid to, which gave me hope, but it was still a difficult time. It was even worse because I had just had a relationship where I could be open and honest, so being forced to hide again was all the more painful.

I moved to Misawa Air Base, Japan, in 2008. After the relatively free and accepting culture of California, where I could blend in as long as I traveled far enough, I was in for a culture-shock moving to northern Japan.

In Misawa, if you’re white, it’s assumed you’re military, or affiliated with the base. There is no socializing that’s worry-free of discovery. Go too far from the base, and no one speaks English. Stray too close to the base, and you loose anonymity. In my case, working as a public affairs photographer, there was a good chance people would recognize me.

Instead, I devoted myself to work and online classes I was taking with Berklee College of Music’s online school. I was growing as an artist and my creative expression helped keep the loneliness at bay. I managed to procure a few close friends I could at least be myself around, but I had no LGBT friends there who truly understood that side of me. Sometimes that’s all a person needs – someone who understands.

Then, last year, talk of the Log Cabin Republicans’ case reached my computer screen. DADT was in the back of my mind much of the year due to President Barrack Obama’s promise to end DADT, as well as the Department of Defense study that was going on at the time to determine how to best implement a repeal.

In mid-October, I read the headline that Judge Virginia A. Phillips had ruled in favor of the Log Cabin Republicans, placing a worldwide injunction on DADT. My life was turned on end. Technically, I could have shouted from the rooftops and nothing could have touched me, but the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network recommended against such actions. The internet was in a frenzy over this turn of events. People who had never been part of the military were speaking out on my behalf, often missing their mark by leaps and bounds. And yet, I had to stay silent, living vicariously through the comments and rants being posted online eight thousand miles away, often from the mouths of bigots speaking against people who could not answer in their own defense.

As the days during the injunction passed, emotions of the situation conjoined with six years of repressed emotion and came boiling to the surface. I distinctly remember walking back into the wing headquarters building after lunch one day, barely holding back tears. One of my closest friends in the office noticed me and asked if I was okay. I barely choked out a “no, I’m not” before darting inside to try and regain composure.

I decided to make some coffee to get my mind off things and hopefully lift my spirits by lifting those of the friends I made it for. To my chagrin, it proved to be a futile effort. The same friend entered the kitchenette with another friend and asked what was wrong. I tried to continue making coffee, afraid to speak knowing that I wouldn’t be able to hold myself together, but the tears that I was fighting so hard to hold back came bursting forth anyway.

They closed the door and I lost it completely, not a scrap of composure left as I cried there in the small kitchenette. I didn’t care if they knew about me or not. I was too weak from days of internal battles and bottling anger towards what was being said online. Even as I think about that time while writing this, my eyes begin to water. It was both a moment of excruciating pain, but also one of immeasurable comfort as two friends that are now as family to me supported me and helped me through that dark day.

I came out to a few other people in the office over the coming months, less afraid of their reactions after seeing such support from the two who were there for me when I broke down at work. I was still in a bit of a daze from what was going on, so people who knew me realized something was up. One quirk of my personality is that if someone I respect asks me a direct question, I’m incapable of lying to them. I’d like to think it’s a good trait, but it tends to backfire on me at times.

I ended up taking leave when the results of the DoD study came out. I didn’t want a repeat of my mental meltdown. It was well that I did. Reading some of the hateful things that were said at that time would have been hard to contend with at work while dealing with the other stressors of a typical day in a public affairs office. However, when the repeal had finally been passed by congress and signed by the President, I was ecstatic. I had a tough time containing my excitement or thinking about anything else for a while. It was a turbulent time to say the least.

Around this time, I met my first gay friend at Misawa. He was someone I had known for a while but hadn’t put two-and-two together in regards to his sexuality. As he says, you don’t see it if you aren’t looking, and I had been too busy with other things to notice. I also became involved with the organization OutServe, an organization for LGBT servicemembers. It was then I vowed that as soon as I had a voice to raise regarding DADT and LGBT issues in the military, I would use it to the best of my ability.

A few months later, I moved to Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. Here, I was able to travel from the base and blend in with the international crowd there. Tokyo boasts the highest concentration of LGBT clubs and bars in the world. However, my euphoria was short-lived as the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit a mere two weeks after I arrived there. It was somewhat of a blessing, though, as it kept my mind off things for a few months.

Then, finally, the day arrived when the 60-day death sentence of DADT came with signatures from the President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The excitement began to build amongst the OutServe network and my gay friends. I liken the sensation to the feeling of coming close to the end of a deployment that has gone much longer than expected. We were finally coming home, only in this case, we were coming home to our true selves.

The night before the repeal took effect, I couldn’t sleep. The sheer thought of all the fear, the walking on eggshells as I speak, the white lies omitting mention of boyfriends, the looking over my shoulder, the awkwardness I felt when I saw an attractive guy and had to avert my eyes for fear of discovery, of all that just suddenly going away…. it filled me with such hope and excitement. I think I managed to fall asleep around 1 or 2 a.m. and bolted awake at 5 a.m. not feeling very tired at all. I think I could have skipped to work that day with how amazing my mood was.

Then, the moment of truth came. Midnight, Eastern Daylight Time, equated to 1 p.m. here in Japan. I remember sitting in the food court at the Base Exchange waiting for my order from A&W as I watched the time on my iPhone slowly change to 1 p.m. I remember the nervousness as I typed the Facebook message proclaiming my bisexuality to the world. I remember dread and pure exhilaration as I hesitantly pressed “send,” forever changing my life from that moment onward.

Then, the comments and messages started pouring in. I swear half of them cracked jokes such as “this is news how?” since more people could see my true nature than I had realized. Others congratulated my apparent bravery in coming out at first chance. Still others made comments of unconditional acceptance, reminding me that I’m still welcome at their house should I choose to visit. I can’t describe the joy I felt with the wave of acceptance and applause that greeted me coming out. I had stepped off a cliff into the unknown as a leap of faith, only to be caught gracefully in open arms by dozens of my friends and coworkers over the years.

I looked in on the Public Affairs group on Facebook a few days later and saw a discussion on how PA offices were handling people featured on the 101 Faces of Courage in the current issue of OutServe Magazine. I realized that people didn’t understand the perspective of those who had put their names and faces in that issue. Many wanted the day to just pass quietly, and without incident. I can’t say I blame them. I work in a public affairs office and fully understand how crazy it can be to try and coordinate media and help the Air Force keep its best foot forward. I was thankful to have the opportunity to help people understand from the perspective of someone who remains on both sides of that fence.

The truth is, the people who placed their faces in OutServe Magazine, as well as me writing this blog, didn’t do so necessarily for their own need for attention. They did it because for once, they could. This is the rooftop we shout from. I also write this blog in the hope that those who follow behind me do not have to suffer the same as I had. It really is a bright new world full of possibilities, and it’s only just begun to sink in what it all means to me. The repeal of DADT truly is a momentous occasion, one to be celebrated for years to come.

P.S. – Thank you to everyone who supported me though all the times mentioned in this article, as well as those not mentioned. I could not be where I am today without the shoulders to cry on, the jokes to make me laugh, the words of encouragement and the swift kicks in the rear when I found myself wallowing in self-pitty. Words cannot express the debt of gratitude I have to each and every one of you.

4 thoughts on “The road to repeal

  1. Sam, I am told that relationships are hard enough when they’re “traditional” and accepted by the populous. Juggling the pressures and trials of loving another is only compounded and confused by the GLBT sense of shame. I have found that a couple, regardless of sexuality, is best received when they have smiles on their faces and love in their eyes. And if course, since no one is perfectly happy all if the time, it’s easy to bash a “questionable” relationship as soon as something turns a little sour. Bros before hoes turns into: am I asking relationship advice from the right person? Being open about your love goes running back into hiding if there’s a little troubled water. And staying together is.. More than it should be.. Tough to float. It sounds like you’ve met (and totally deserve) some awesome friends but make sure you continue to source your decsisions from where it matters the most: your own heart. Most great acts follow two parameters. First, the acting party has studied history and is aware and prepared for consequences. Second, they do something that no one told them to do.
    You are amazing my brother. Continue to march toward enlightenment. Be proud of what you’ve learned and be excited for who you will yet become.

  2. Sam, Thank you for being you, and I am glad that you can now be yourself to everyone. It’s hard to play a facade if you never have a break, and a shame that in order to show your love of your country you could not show your love for others fully and comfortably. I will continue to challenge bigotry everywhere I see it, so that the next generation will keep such moronic closeting ideas as DADT out of our vocabulary (next stop, stupidity of “civil unions” over “marriage”). I wish you fulfillment, love, and happiness, and remain your ever-loving-albeit-traditional sister, even if that makes me the weird one of the family! Much love and long-distance hugs.

  3. Sam, this is a wonderful blog you’re making here! You’ve got a talent for writing! I mean, I just met ya last night at the event, but somehow after reading your posts, I have a sense that I know you. That’s an quality of an engaging writer I think. Can’t wait to read more!!!

  4. Pingback: The Road to Repeal | Stonewall AJET

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