Last edited: February 14, 2005

Courage Under Fire

For Years, the Armed Forces Have Been Dismissing Gay Soldiers. Now That the Country is at War, Will America Let Them Fight?

Details, November 27, 2001

By Carl Swanson

Like his nation, Andre Taylor slept. He had no reason not to: it was twenty to ten in the morning, and Tuesday, September 11, was his day off from his job as a bookstore manager. His basement room in Arlington, Virginia, is just six blocks south of the Pentagon—he used to jog its perimeter, running up and down its monumental stairs—close enough that on that morning, his whole house shuddered and his dogs started barking when the plane hit. "Get up, get up, get up!" His roommate was shouting, bug-eyed, from the top of the stairs. "You’ve got to see what’s happened in the world!"

Taylor stirred and looked out the window: black smoke. He could hear secondary booms from the explosions going off at the building. There were reports of bombs at the State Department. He wanted to just "put on my uniform and run right down there." But Taylor had been kicked out of the Air Force in 1996 for being gay.

Taylor, 27, is a boundingly fresh-faced Navy brat. He joined the Air Force when he was 19, intending to make a career there. The Air Force put him to work on the flight lines in Italy, fueling jets for the bombing of Bosnia. Afterward, he was sent to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where, in 1996, a friend was accused (and later convicted) of raping eight servicemen. "A female friend of his found out about a guy he got together with and she got upset, jealous, and went to the base police," he says, pulling apart the table bread at a California Pizza Kitchen at the Pentagon Centre mall. "He admitted it, and those names were called in. If those guys had said, ‘Yeah, I let him do it,’ then they would be convicted of sodomy," and discharged.

Later, in a bid for lenience, the friend turned Taylor and several other guys in for being gay. Taylor was investigated and kicked out. Which is why he’s working at a Waldenbooks instead of hustling off to serve. "Now, more than ever, I’m needed," he says. "Jets can’t fly without fuel. I’m trained, I’m ready. I just need my uniform and where to go."

America hasn’t been under siege since World War II. Now, with Humvees on city streets and fighter planes guarding us against civilian airliners, more than 32,000 reserve and National Guard members have been called to active duty. The Department of Defense authorized the armed forces to issue "stop loss" orders that would prevent essential service members from leaving the military. On September 19, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that this meant the gay ban in the military would be suspended for the course of the war. There was a precedent: An Army Commander’s Handbook from the Gulf War instructed that once a reserve unit had been put on "alert notification," no discharges for homosexuality would be authorized. The report went out on the wires and the Internet.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which gives advice to gays in the military about their rights, started getting calls from clients. "We had one who had been in the Navy," says SLDN spokesman Steve Ralls, "and had been pretty seriously harassed and had received physical threats. As soon as the stop-loss report went out, she immediately contacted a recruiter." But it turned out that the Chronicle jumped the gun: When the Navy and the Air Force announced their stop-loss orders, they didn’t change their gay-ban policies. (At press time, the Army hadn’t made an announcement.) "Most involuntary discharges would not be affected by the stop loss," says a Pentagon spokesperson. "Nor will stop loss change any policies or regulations currently in effect that might lead to an administrative discharge, which is what you are referring to."

Last year, more than 1,200 service members were discharged for "homosexual conduct" or making a "homosexual statement." Those are the two offenses that violate the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy that Congress passed in 1993, which says that homosexuals may serve as long as they tell no one about their sexual orientation, refrain from "homosexual acts," and don’t attempt a "homosexual marriage."

"People who are discharged aren’t allowed to reenlist," says SLDN’s legal director, Sharra Greer. "People really, really want to go back. There’s a legal, theoretical possibility that you can get back in. But there’s never been anybody who’s done it."

Most of SLDN’s clients—like most service members, and most people who are coming to terms with their sexuality—are under 25. People like Steve May, who figured out he was gay while he was in the ROTC program at Claremont McKenna College. "I wasn’t the only gay senior cadet," he says. "We’d joke about it." May had met John McCain as a teen Republican in the late eighties, and the war hero inspired him to sign up for the Army. When he got out, his job was to train soldiers to survive chemical- and biological-weapons attacks—a useful skill these days.

But as it turned out, it wasn’t so easy being gay in the military. May didn’ t like the double life or the paranoia. "I left as soon as I could because I didn’t want to get kicked out," he says. After leaving, in 1995, he went on to become a Republican state legislator in Arizona. In 1999, the Army reactivated him to help train troops for Bosnia. "I was shocked, because by then, I had been openly gay on the front page of the newspaper." When that was pointed out to his commander, the Army went about ridding itself of him. May fought back; thanks to the intervention of President Clinton, he was allowed to serve out his reserve term through this past summer. "I would go back—but I wouldn’t want to deal with this again," he says. "It was a terrible year and a half of harassment and character assassination at the hearing. The Army accused me of going back intentionally to embarrass them. All I was doing was following orders." May views serving in the armed forces as a moral calling: "I was and am willing to give my life to protect our nation," he says. "I love the Army. My anger is directed toward the cowards in Congress who made this law."

The military stepped up anti-harassment training when Barry Winchell, a gay private, was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by a straight soldier two years ago at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, after Winchell whipped him in a fight. A follow-up Pentagon study found anti-gay remarks and harassment common in the ranks. Nonetheless, President Bush declared himself a "‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ man" during the election and hasn’t made the issue a priority. But now that kids are declaring themselves gay in high school, it’s hard to imagine that this kind of legislated closet will remain standing much longer. Many of the younger troops, who grew up watching gay accessory characters in sitcoms, don’t seem to have as many problems with there being a similar casting choice in their barracks. Some of the older guys are on board, too: Retired Army Major General Vance Coleman recently declared that "sexual orientation has nothing to do with duty performance." This has been the experience in countries like Canada, Australia, Israel, and Great Britain—all of which allow gays to serve openly.

Norfolk, Virginia, is home to the world’s largest naval base, and by October, it was nearly emptied of the big gray ships that normally line its grimy harbor. If much of the rest of the country suddenly feels like occupied territory, that’s just what this sea-level town—with its drab numbered buildings cordoned off by chain-link fences and the neat anywhereness of neighborhoods built for its soldier-citizens—has always felt like. "This is not exactly the best place to be gay, but it’s gotten better," says Erik, the manager of the discreet Lambda Rising gay bookstore, easy to miss across from a closed gas station near the base.

You won’t see any big rainbow flags hanging from the façade of the Garage, a gay bar in an old yellow-brick industrial building. Grizzled owner Tony Pritchard, in shorts and loafers, settles in over an iced tea while his bar is tended by a guy with a blond buzz cut who’s just out of the Navy. "There’s been a major drop in business" since September 11, he says. The bases are on high alert, bristling with hair-trigger security. Pritchard has operated gay bars in this Navy town for 30 years, since "the Stone Age," as he puts it, back when "you and I sitting here, they’d arrest us for talking, saying we were fondling each other." And though certain things haven’t changed—like the AP photo that showed a Navy guy painting high jack this, fags on an airborne bomb bound for Afghanistan—overall, gay military people are feeling "less paranoid," says Tom Wyatt, in a T-shirt that says b4real, who joins us at the rickety table. Wyatt’s boyfriend is out on a ship right now. "We get people in here in their uniforms," says Pritchard. "They might come in to meet someone and leave right away." "They used to park around the corner," says Wyatt. "Now they just park right out front." The young shirtless crowd at the Wave gay dance club sometimes even flash military IDs to get in. Some of Lambda Rising’s customers come in uniform and ask for military discounts. Norfolk plans to hold its first gay-pride parade this year—with a Mardi Gras theme, so people can wear masks. "I think there are very few people who haven’t dated someone in the military," says Michael Barber, a local gay activist.

"We had a lot of friends who were shipmates on the U.S.S. Cole," says "Jocelyn" (not her real name), a frank, sturdy Navy reservist with thick glasses and a short Afro who works at Lambda Rising’s crosstown rival bookstore, Phoenix Rising. The Cole was the ship off the coast of Yemen that Osama Bin Laden’s minions blew a hole in a year ago, killing seventeen sailors. "The pride in this area runs deep." And she doesn’t mean the kind best expressed by a bear-shaped rainbow-flag sticker, although she’s surrounded by them. "I have several friends who are away right now," says Barber. "We’re just hoping to get all the boys home safely."

Barber’s friend "Bo," a 29-year-old petty officer second class, enlisted because "I thought I could make a difference. It was right about the time when Desert Storm made people want to join." He came out while bunked with 33 sailors on a ship one day as they discussed "don’t ask, don’t tell." "I told them that actually, most gay men don’t just look at men and want to sleep with them," he recalls. They asked him how he knew, and he said, "Because I am one."

He says that since they already knew him and he didn’t fit into the "typical stereotype of being gay," they didn’t have a problem with it. "There’s a time and a place for letting people know who you are," he says. "I don’t believe that people in any society should step out of the norm." The sailors he’s seen get in trouble—other than the unlucky ones who left a letter from a lover sitting out on a ship or got caught holding hands at a club—are the ones who "carry themselves in a prissy way. Most commands do not do any kind of formal questioning as long as they carry themselves professionally."

Bo, who lives with his boyfriend, works for the naval-base personnel office and sees homosexuals who are being processed out. He believes the best policy is to admit only to feelings: "You’ll get an honorable discharge; it’s considered almost a hardship because you can’t conform to military standards." But if you admit you’ve actually done the deed, "you’ ll get an other-than-honorable. And you’ll get no benefits and have trouble getting another government job." Get caught in the act and you risk a "bad-conduct discharge." But since the attacks, "they’re putting less emphasis on everything," he says, "until everyone’s fully staffed and manned."

"I know I wouldn’t get kicked out if they found out," says "Steve," a 21-year-old sailor. "But they’d make my life hell. I’d lose my clearances. They’d take me off my ship and give me shore duty." He doesn’t go out to gay bars near the base, and when he does go out, he doesn’t shave for a couple of days beforehand: "I do pretty much everything I can to look not military."

These days, May is on the lecture circuit. Gay teenagers ask him whether they should sign up for the military. "Young people today, 18- to 25-year-olds, don’t think of sexual orientation the way people who are even 30 do. For them, it’s as simple as having blue eyes. And I have to tell them that they have to abide by ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’" He sighs. "I met this kid in New York," he says, "a beautiful, strapping 19-year-old Italian guy. He wanted to join the Marines. He looked like one." May explained "don’t ask, don’t tell" to him. "He says, ‘That’s OK, I act straight, I look straight. No one would ever find me out.’ But you spend a month with these guys in the desert—you live very close to them." According to the researchers who came up with the current policy, the ban on being openly gay was supposed to ensure two things: "unit cohesion" and "straight modesty." But May says that "my Army buddies, they accepted me. My experience was that they hoped that they could rely on me to protect them from the enemy."

But the law doesn’t care if you can be relied on. In the summer of 1999, Chris Pristera, an Air Force second lieutenant, had just been recommended for flight training. His duty to his country was challenged only by his "ambivalence" toward women. On a trip to Washington, D.C., he forced himself to go to J.R.’s Bar and Grill, a well-known prepster gay lair, where he’d hoped to "prove to myself that I wasn’t what these guys were at all," as he wrote in a letter to his commanding officer in May 2000. Instead, he found "an endless sea of similar people."

His letter began, "I am a gay man who wants to continue to serve his country honorably and openly." He hadn’t looked into the consequences of sending such a letter, or thought of how his commander, who’d been something of a "father figure," might receive this revelation. In short order, he was denied promotion, stopped getting new assignments, and was put under investigation. He fought it, but in his hearing his commander testified that Chris was not "a man of integrity" because he failed to "adhere to rules and standards" by coming out. Pristera was processed out this past June and is now fighting the requirement that he pay back a prorated portion of his ROTC scholarship.

Now dressed in Banana Republican civvies with spit-shined chunky-soled shoes, Pristera still doesn’t understand his treatment. He’d intended to make a career of the Air Force. "I’m not necessarily what the policy was geared to remove," he says. "The policy was intended to remove those who would be a harm to getting the mission done. I just don’t think that the policy was geared toward removing someone who was meeting and exceeding expectations despite their sexual orientation."

On September 11, Pristera was at his job at Lockheed in northern Virginia. "There were actually people on the phone with the Pentagon when it was hit." His first reaction? "What I wouldn’t give to be on a plane heading toward wherever it was to kick some ass." He’s glad he at least works for a defense contractor, "but it’s not the same as if I was still in the Air Force and putting bombs on target," he says. "It’s been a little hard on me. My companion, Joe, was like, ‘Would you sign back up?’ And I told him, ‘In a heartbeat.’ I’d go back right away."

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