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Guest Post by Geoff Guth: The Personal Impact of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Cross-posted with permission. ~Louise

By now you all know I’m a gay man. You may not be aware that I’m also a veteran, who served for about five and a half years as an active duty infantryman. I have a DD214 that certifies my honorable discharge. And I was discharged under DADT.

There have been a number of discussions about the effect that DADT has on national security (e.g. the loss of 59 Arabic linguists, including an infantry platoon leader and West Point grad with combat experience in Iraq-gee, ya think it might be valuable having a guy with boots on the ground who can talk to the freaking locals?). You can also, as the President did in the State of the Union, frame this as a civil rights issue, and so assert that the repeal is a moral imperative.

I’d like to approach this from the point of view of a gay soldier serving under DADT. This will draw heavily on my own personal experience and so at best is merely anecdotal evidence. But I think it’s worth looking at the direct effect DADT had on my life.

First of all, I’m no longer in the Army. I left in October of 2000, which in hindsight made my mother very happy. With an honorable discharge, I took full advantage of the GI Bill, attended university, and am now firmly ensconced in civilian life. Hard to imagine that at one point, I considered putting in my 20 years and retiring from the Army (I’d be three quarters of the way there at this point, probably a platoon sergeant, assuming I hadn’t been injured or killed in Iraq or Afghanistan). So losses and gains there: a good education and employment in the civilian world, but loss of a potential career, including about 6 years worth of work that will never be of much use for retirement purposes (unless I end up working for the federal government in some other capacity).

But to have a bar to reenlistment on your record, especially in the wake of 9/11, was a very depressing thing. At a time when many Americans wanted to do their part to serve the country, I was forbidden to join my friends. It made me fell as if my contributions were worthless and as if I’d abandoned my friends on the battlefield.

The rest Of Geoff’s account below the fold.

Integrity and Being Gay in the Barracks and Showers

So what was it like to be a gay man in the infantry? Well, the first thing you learn is how to lie and how to keep your life separated. I’d actually been out of the closet for a bit prior to enlisting, and had an ex that I left behind. So rule number one: all references to my ex were about my “girlfriend” and all my correspondents in basic training knew not to reveal anything that might give me away. But, of course, that meant that my integrity was compromised right from the beginning at Fort Benning.

Lots of conservatives worry about gay servicemembers leering at their straight brethren in the showers. You can tell that the people concerned about that haven’t spent much time on active duty. Yes, basic training does strip away your privacy, and yes you do shower with a lot of other young men. However, for much of basic training, you really have no sexual thoughts at all. There’s even an old rumor that floats around about saltpeter in the water. You are so focused on doing the right thing just getting through basic training that you don’t really think about sex much at all.

Once you reach your duty station, assuming you live in the barracks, you actually have far more privacy than many civilians suppose. At Fort Campbell, we mostly had two men to each room (with a shared bathroom). The rooms could be arranged to provide the maximum privacy, so I rarely, if ever, had much of an opportunity to see anyone naked or vice versa. Even in schools like Airborne or PLDC or BNCOC, you have far more privacy than you might at first suppose.

During field training, of course, you were sleeping outdoors and surrounded by the other men in your platoon. But there too, there was little opportunity for any hanky-panky. First of all, you rarely changed clothes at all aside from your socks (“showering” was generally limited to wiping your sensitive areas with baby wipes).

But suppose we did actually live in barracks like you see in the old WWII movies. Would I, as a gay soldier, have been tempted to act inappropriately? In my case, the answer would have been “no,” for the simple reason that I worked very hard to not be a “gay soldier.”

Keeping it Separated

You learn very early on to place barriers inside your head between the two parts of your life. So when I was in uniform, I was a soldier, period. I worked hard at my professionalism, concentrated on the tasks at hand. When I socialized with other soldiers, I kept my “gay” side firmly walled away. When and how did it come out? Two ways:

First, I got myself a car as soon as I could reasonably afford it. That allowed me access to gay bars in nearby cities off post. The further away from the barracks I got, the more I could indulge my “gay side.” So I’d head to Nashville or further afield maybe once a month or so. Needless to say, this did not encourage the formation of a stable relationship (what kind of a marriage will survive once-a-month contact?) so being in the Army led mostly to one-night stands and at most a few acquaintances that I knew and trusted.

Second, I went online when I could. I always had to be careful about what I chose to reveal about myself and I was always very well aware that I might be caught and exposed and drummed out of the service. It was difficult to relate to other civilian gay men and hard to find other men who were in the military and who could relate to my situation.

These survival mechanisms have led to persistent problems that I have right down to this day. I tend to have difficulty with relationships, because it’s so hard to get out of the habit of walling off huge chunks of my life. I don’t talk to my partner about work, and I don’t talk to my co-workers about my family. I tend to be reticent and concentrate on getting the job done.

A significant part of my life is still online and hence walled off from what I may do in my social life. For example, I haven’t shared this blog with anyone else in my family, including my partner. It’s an entirely different space in my head. It seems entirely natural to me to keep real life and the Internet both at arm’s length.

And finally, it’s been very difficult to connect with anyone else intimately. I spent many of my formative adult years steering clear of close relationships with other people because they were simply impossible. Casual sex? No problem. Anything more than that? Very difficult. So that’s another habit that’s been very hard to break, even though it’s caused all manner of trouble.

Substance Abuse

I’m sorry to say that one very effective way of breaking those walls down is through either drugs or alcohol. Soldiers are especially known for their copious drinking, and I did my fair share with the other guys in the barracks. But it was also the main way I taught myself to relax and let my sexuality out. Being drunk meant that I wasn’t worried as much about being caught. It also helped lower other inhibitions. And so that became an important part of my monthly road trips.

I avoided other drugs while I was still a servicemember (routine random drug testing was enough to keep me scared of that), but, after I got out, those too could be a good substitute for alcohol.

Repealing DADT

So what effect would DADT’s repeal have had on me? To tell you the truth, not too much. I likely would have rejoined the Army after 9/11 and done my part that way. I likely still would have been circumspect about my sexuality. I don’t think the majority of people I served with would have really cared, but there would have been a few who did and who would have made my life difficult.

But I could have served without fear of official exposure. That in itself is a major step, for practical reasons (less personal stress, no chance of blackmail had, say, a subordinate discovered my sexuality), and for reasons of integrity and personal honor. And perhaps, I might have eventually taken the step of finding someone I could be close to. I would have felt more free to be myself in short.

The honest truth is that most gay people in the military, like most other servicemembers, are fairly conservative. They don’t want to live flamboyantly, but are far more interested in keeping their head down and performing well (I personally, was promoted well ahead of my peers thanks to my hard work). But to have at least some measure of support and to live without the constant fear of exposure would be a wonderful step forward.

I want to note here that I’m not interested in any pity or sympathy. I made the decision to enlist knowing the environment I was walking into. And while I may not have been able to appreciate the long-term consequences of my choice, I did know that I would have to adapt myself to military culture, not vice versa. I’m man enough to live with the consequences of my choices, and even knowing what I know now, I would not have neglected my duty to serve.

The gay and lesbian soldiers serving today all made the same choice that I did: to volunteer for service knowing that price that we pay in terms of our personal lives. That is precisely why conservative attempts to portray the repeal of DADT as somehow turning the military into the Castro is so ridiculous. It’s pandering to a stereotype.

Finally, I’ll say that neo-con warmongers like Bill Kristol and Michael O’Hanlon, men who gleefully send Americans off to fight the wars they cheer for even as they hid behind their mother’s skirts when it was time for them to step up have absolutely zero business discussing what the troops will or will not accept. I suspect Glenn Greenwald has their number:

But one thing is clear: in American culture, there has long been a group of men (typified by Kristol and O’Hanlon) who equate toughness and masculinity with fighting wars, yet who also know that they lack the courage of their own convictions, and thus confine themselves to cheerleading for wars from afar and sending others off to fight but never fighting those wars themselves (Digby wrote the seminal post on that sorry faction back in 2005). It seems that individuals plagued by that affliction are eager to avoid having it rubbed in their faces that there are large numbers of homosexual warriors who possess the courage (the “testosterone-laden tough-guyness”) which the O’Hanlons and Kristols, deep down, know they lack. Banning gay people from serving openly in the military as warriors is an excellent way of being able to deny that reality to themselves.

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