Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Don't Ask, Don' Tell

The news is out, Barack Obama is going to overturn the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military. Thank God. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary stated that Obama will request that the policy be discontinued.

This is ironic because I am just finishing the book, “Major Conflict” by Jeffrey McGowan, a retired U. S. Army major. Major McGowan hid is sexuality during his ten years in the Army. Reading his book brought back so many painful memories for me. I also served in the U.S. Army. My tour of duty was January 27, 1960 through January 26th, 1963. I was stationed at Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland. I worked at the National Security Agency. I had a top secret security clearance. If there was even a hint of my homosexuality, I would have been cashiered out of the Army immediately. Back when I was in the Army, all it took was an accusation and you would lose your clearance. If you lost your clearance, the Army Security Agency gave you a Section 8 discharge. While it wasn’t a dishonorable discharge, it wasn’t the type of discharge you would want on your record for the rest of your life.

Another irony, before I joined the Army, I didn’t know another gay person. Like many closeted gays of my generation, I thought I was the “only one” in the world. Remember, I grew up in the Fifties, when the only thing on TV was Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Of course I was aware of perverts who hung around men’s room. I knew I wasn’t one of those. I also knew I wasn’t Milton Berle in drag. I just thought I was “different.” So it came as a surprise that some of the first gay guys I met were in the Army. No, there were no sexual encounters. That didn’t happen. As friendships developed, our common sexual identity just sort of came out. There was never one dramatic moment when my friend Ron or Sal said “Oh! You’re gay too?” That never happened. I had many friends when I was in the Army. Gay and straight. We were all soldiers and we behaved as soldiers. We were all in the same boat. When you're on the front line with bullets whizzing above your head, no one is going to ask you if you're straight or gay. While I know there are homophobes in the Army, I believe most of the fear of gays comes from those outside the Army.

Ron and Sal were my best friends during my 2 ½ years at Ft. Meade. We had a wonderful camaraderie. I cannot imagine how my time at Ft. Meade without their friendship. Ron and Sal are gone now. They would have been surprised and very happy with this news. Unfortunately, Sal was right when he said "I'll never see it in my lifetime. " I wish I could pick up the phone and call Sal now to discuss this good news with him. I can't because Sal died October 17th, 2006. I will have to be content knowing that Sal is looking down from Heaven with that warm smile of his at this turn of events.

Like Jeffrey McGowan, I wanted to serve my country. Except for the pressure of hiding my sexual identity, I enjoyed my three years of duty. I had a great job at NSA. In fact, I could’ve transferred to civilian status after my tour of duty with the Army ended. However, when my enlistment was up, I decided not to reenlist or to transfer over to civilian status. I knew that the Army and the National Security Agency had a policy of firing homosexuals. I couldn’t imagine starting my life living a lie. Sooner or later, I would be found out. I couldn’t and wouldn’t live with that pressure.

Reading “Major Conflict”, all these memories came rushing back to me. The unfairness of losing my security clearance and getting kicked out of the Army just because of my sexual identity. I only had to be accused to lose my security clearance thrown out of the Army with a Section 8. I did not engage in any misbehavior. Ron, Sal and I were just friends. Unlike what many straight people think, gays men aren’t attracted to every man they see just as straight men aren’t attracted to every woman they see.

It’s ironic but the reason stated why a gay person would lose their clearance was because they would be subject to blackmail. This is a Catch-22 because the only reason they would be subject to blackmail is because the Army and NSA had a policy of not hiring gays. Never mind that there has never been on case of a gay person being blackmailed into revealing national secrets, the Army and the National Security Agency clung to their policy against gays.

When January 26th, 1963 rolled around, I left the Army and the National Security Agency. In April of that year I went to my first gay bar in the old steel town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. A little over a year later I met Bill, my life partner of 44 years now. Another irony, Bill was also in the service. He served for a time in the Army, and the balance of his ten years in the service was with the Air Force. Thus it came to pass that two Army vets are now partners for life.

When Clinton came into office, he attempted to lift the ban on gays in the military. Unfortunately, he blinked and backed down to the generals and the outcry from Congress. Clinton should have done what that long time conservative Barry Goldwater advised, remind the generals that he was the commander in chief and if they didn’t like his order, then they should resign.

There will be another outcry this time again. There are those in this country who consider gays as a lesser life form. We are the last minority that it is permissible to discriminate against. However, times have changed. The question is, have they changed enough that the majority of this country now see that allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve benefits not only gays but also benefits the country?

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