Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repealed

Jim Harris and Ron Tipton, Ft. George G. Meade Firing Range, September 1961



The Senate passed a bill today to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law.  The vote was 65 to 31.  Thus comes to an end the official discrimination of gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces of the United State of America.  


This is something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.  


Fifty years ago I joined the Army right out of high school.  After graduating from high school I felt it was my obligation as a citizen of this country to join the armed forces.  


I knew at the time I was going to join the Army that I was gay.  However, back then in the Fifties, "gay" wasn't a commonly used term to describe homosexuals.  I knew I was a homosexual.  Even though I had no sexual experience of any kind, I knew I was "different."  I was sexually aroused by men.  I was not sexually aroused by women, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise.  


I did not know any other gay (homosexual) people.  The only thing I knew back then that there were dirty old men who hung around public bathrooms.  I knew I wasn't one of "them."  I didn't know what I was but I did know I was different.  Remember, this was back in the Fifties when information about gays and lesbians were not on TV or the media.  I lived a small town and I knew nothing about sex.  What I did know was that homosexuality was against the law.  I also knew that the church damed people who were homosexual.  I knew I had to keep secret what I was.  I didn't want to go to jail or be ostracized by my family or friends.  I knew I had a problem. 


Thus when I came upon the question on the Navy application papers "Do you have homosexual tendencies?"  I lied.  I knew if I answered "Yes" I was done.  I feared being arrested and being put in jail.  In the eyes of the law at that time I was a criminal.


I was originally going to join the Navy.  I wanted to see the world.  I had all my enlistment papers ready and all I had to do was pick them up from the Navy recruiter who was located in the basement of the Post Office in Coatesville, PA.  Also in that basement were the recruiters for the Air Force, Marines and Army.  


The day I went in to pick up my final enlistment papers the Navy recruiter was out to lunch.  While I was waiting for him, the Army recruiter started to engage me in conversation.  He asked my why I was joining the Navy.  I told him because I wanted to see the world.  He told me that I could also "see the world" in the Army but would only be obligated for a three year enlistment instead of a four year enlistment.  He said I could join the Army Security Agency which was 99% guaranteed to travel the world.  This sounded good to me so I changed my mind and informed the Navy recruiter of the same when he returned from lunch. 


Thus I made two tries in joining the Army.  The first time I failed the physical. It was determined that I was born with a hernia.  The Army wouldn't take me unless I had an operation (at my family's expense).  I was determined to join the Army so I had the operation and almost lost my life as a result of acquiring a staph infection which was misdiagnosed.  After three operations and a long stays in the contagion ward of the hospital, I was finally able to pass the Army physical.  I joined the Army January 27, 1960.


After I  completed basic training at Ft. Dix, I was sent Army Security school in Ft. Devens, Massachusetts.  I completed schooling in three months and irony of all ironies, was assigned to Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland for the remaining two and half years of my enlistment.  So much for seeing the world.  


Ft. Meade is the headquarters for the super secret spy agency, the National Security Agency or NSA.  At the time I worked there I wasn't even allowed to tell my family or friend where I worked.  I had a top secret clearance.  Homosexuals were not allowed to work for the National Security Agency because they were deemed a threat to national security because they could be blackmailed.  The reason for the blackmail?  If someone found out I was gay they could threaten to make public that fact.  This is a classic Catch-22 law but it was one I was trapped in.  Thus I had to lie again when I filled out my application papers to work at the National Security Agency.


At Ft. Meade I met the first gay people in my life.  Our meetings weren't any big revelatory thing, but rather a gradual understanding.  It was also not a sexual meeting.  The whole three years I was in the Army I had no sexual experiences.  I didn't dare.  Honestly, I wouldn't know what to do anyway, I was that backwards sexually.  


I didn't dare because the Army Security Agency and NSA had ongoing witch hunts for gays and lesbians.  During my two and a half years I saw many of my fellow soldiers lose their clearances and were less than honorable discharged from the Army, their future lives permanently affected.  One didn't have to even engage in sexual activity to lose one's clearance.  If you were accused of being gay, you had to prove you weren't.  If  you couldn't, you lost your clearance and were discharged.  I lived under that Damocles' Sword for two and a half years. 


I liked the Army.  I had a good job.  I liked the regimen and the fact that everyone was treated equally according to willingness to work hard and skills.  There was no class distinctions as there was in civilian life.  I did well in my job.  I had attained the rank of Specialist 5th class (equivalent of staff sergeant).  I was a soldier of the month.  I was an assistant barracks leader with my own room which I loved.  I was paid well.  I wanted to make a career out of the Army.  Since I couldn't afford to go to college, I thought the Army offered me the best opportunity in life.  But I knew in my heart I couldn't stay in the Army because sooner or later I would become sexually active and be found out.  I didn't want to live a lie for twenty years.   


I also liked my job at NSA.  I could have easily converted to civilian status with the same job and was in fact urged to do so.  But back then the United States government also had a policy that homosexuals could not have a security clearance.  I had a top secret security clearance which was the highest.  I made the decision that I didn't want to live a lie either in the Army or working for the government as a GS-14.  I also didn't want to risk imprisonment for lying that I was a homosexual.  Back then homosexuality was still against the law.  I was still a criminal.


So when my term of enlistment came to an end on January 27, 1963 I left the Army and my job at the National Security Agency.  


In all the years since I've often wondered how my life would have turned out if I wasn't a homosexual and could have made the Army a career or even working for the National Security Agency a career.  If I did I would probably be one of these rich Washington D.C. retired gays who now populated the Rehoboth Beach social scene.  These are the guys who can afford these expensive Rehoboth Beach restaurants.  But no, it was not to be.  I left the Army and my days of working at NSA behind me and began a new life in Pittsburgh, PA.  


Back seventeen years ago when Bill Clinton ran on the promise to open the armed services to gays and lesbians I felt like a wrong had been righted.  Thus I was very disappointed when he caved into the reactionaries and signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law. One of the most odious and discriminatory laws ever passed in this country.  "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ranks right up there with the Dred Scott Decision in my opinion of blatant legitimized discrimination fueled by fear of the unknown.


This year I had all but given up hope on President Obama and Congress.  Obama promised to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" but he seemed to be dragging his feet.  This looked like just another empty campaign promise.  But, much to my surprise and happiness, the Senate finally passed a law to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  


At 69 years of age, I am at the end of my life now.  The practical effect of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" wont' affect my everyday life.  However, out there is another young man like I was 51 years ago.  A young man (or woman) who wants to serve their country and who want the opportunity for a better life that the armed forces provide.  A young man (or woman) who will not now be denied that opportunity just because of who they are.  That is the person I rejoice for on this wonderful day.  This history making day that a mighty wrong was finally righted.


Now if you will excuse me, I have 65 e-mails to send to senators who supported the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  Then I will send the president of the United States, Barrack Obama, a personal letter thanking him for keeping his campaign promise.  


Just watch, the whole country will benefit from this wonderful action today.  


I love living in this country, the United States of America.  For all it's flaws (and there are plenty), it is still the best place to live on this earth.  





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8 comments:

  1. I've only known about this issue in any depth because of following your blog, Ron. Glad to hear there's been a successful outcome in legislation :)

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  2. Ron,

    I remember that time you joined up. I remember you going in to sign the papers for the Navy and coming back telling me you joined the Army instead. What I asked why you said, "Better uniforms" and I replied , "Then why didn't you join the Marines?" Yes, you did explain about the wait and the Army guy calling you over.

    So they told you that you would definitely see the world, eh? They told you a lot of lies, didn't they? I remember when you came to me and urged me to join with you on something called "The Buddy System". We would be guaranteed to serve together. I wonder? You also told me, as a selling point, if I joined I would get a private physical, not the big herd exam. I did go through that big herd exam when I was drafted a few years later. How 'bout you? You get that private pre-induction physical? :)

    One thing is curious. "If you were accused of being gay, you had to prove you weren't."

    How in the world do you do that? What can you do to prove you aren't? Bring in "Playboy" and get aroused looking at the Playmate of the Month? Talk about an impossible trap.

    Anyway, I anticipated this would be your post today.

    Lar

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  3. Kim,

    To quote Joe Biden, "This is a big f__cking deal." Repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", which legalized discrimination of a class of citizens is historic. I am glad this happened in my lifetime.

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  4. Lar,

    Did I really say "better uniforms?" Actually, I believed the Navy had better uniforms. And I remember nothing about private physicals. There was no such thing. I said that too? There was the Buddy System. I would knew guys who went in under the Buddy System. They did stay together. Two that I remember specifically were Hansen and Cresson.

    About proving I wasn't gay. Yes, that's proving a negative. Impossible to do but that was the criteria. Absolutely. See why I get so crazy about all this "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"

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  5. Ron,

    Yes, you actually did say, kkl. No you didn't say "kkl", the kitten just walked across my keyboard, but you did say, "better uniforms", maybe you were just being funny. And yes, during a time when you were trying to convince me to join with you, you did say the recruiter had said you would get private exams rather than that mass probing. What I don't know now is whether the recruiter really did tell you that or you simply told me that to try and talk me into it.


    And yes, I know there really was and/or is a "buddy system".

    Lar

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  6. Lar,

    I honestly don't remember saying those things to you but perhaps I did. If I did I was joking. I like the Navy uniforms far more than the Army uniforms. And as far as the "private physicals", I definitely had to be lying to trick you into joining with me. You know me all to well!

    Ron

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  7. Ron,

    Of course I did get the not-so private physical, which was fine because it certainly provided material to talk and write about in the years after.

    It is funny the things that stick in the mind and the things that don't. Happens all the time with us. Lo will tell about something that happened years ago and I won't remember a thing about it and vice-versa. It must be what emphasis we put on it at the time.

    Lar

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  8. Lar,

    I've had so many not-so private physicals that I'm immune to any embarrassment now when I'm naked. I could even go through an airport security line naked and feel no embarrassment.
    You're right about certain things we remember and don't remember. Some things are a complete blank in my mind even when people remind me of them. But other things that happened over fifty years ago I remember as clearly as if they happened yesterday. You're right, it's about what emphasis we put on the event at the time that makes the memory indelible in our brain always to be dragged out again.

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