Members of America's Gay Military Share Their Stories of Living With "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

PW presents an excerpt of "Our Time," a new book by local airman Josh Seefried.

By Josh Seefried
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Oct. 3, 2012

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Photo by The Penguin Press

Philadelphia resident Josh Seefried graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2009. While serving his first two years as an active-duty officer under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, he assumed a pseudonym to found OutServe, an online networking organization that allowed LGBT troops to support one another without risking exposure. His book Our Time, newly released in paperback, collects the stories of fellow airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines forced to struggle with maintaining their commitment to an ideal of integrity, under rules that demanded they not be true to themselves. In celebration of October as LGBT History Month, PW presents an excerpt this week.

From the author’s introduction:

President Barack Obama signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal Act bill into law on December 22, 2010. Though it would be a few months until repeal took effect, that day marked the beginning of a new era for the American military. I sat in the audience during the signing ceremony that day as a representative of OutServe and as an active duty gay Air Force officer directly affected by the policy. It was thrilling to celebrate this hard victory alongside other advocates, but I also knew that despite the leap forward there remained a tremendous amount of work to be done. For seventeen years, the policy had effectively silenced an entire military population. The ways in which “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had poisoned military culture remained untold.

I knew the negative effects of this silence firsthand. As a brand new officer at training school, I was blackmailed by an instructor who knew my orientation, but under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” I had no real outlet to stop this abuse. It was this experience that pushed me to found OutServe, along with one of my closest civilian friends, Ty Walrod. The organization began small. In November 2009 my friends and colleagues, outraged by what had happened to me, formed a Facebook group and website titled “Citizens for Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” Soon the page was gaining hundreds of followers daily. I knew that there were thousands of active duty LGBT service members who would benefit from having a support network, but this was proof. We moved quickly to create an underground social networking site for active duty LGBT service members. Until the formation of OutServe, there had been no safe way to create an organized LGBT community in the military. The risk of exposure was far too great. By providing identity security we were able to create a safe space where active duty military personnel could openly form friendships and voice concerns. To date, OutServe has successfully connected more than 5,000 LGBT military personnel around the world.

Our Time is our story of our military experience under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The individuals you will meet in its pages served in silence. They were required to withhold an integral part of themselves from their colleagues. They could not freely share their love for their families or their dreams for the future. They had no protection when individuals used the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to blackmail and harass. However, as active duty service members themselves know, the silence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was already beginning to break. The stories here are testament to the remarkable friendships that form between soldiers, relationships of respect and affection that transcend prejudice and prove just how very outdated and bankrupt the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was.

First Lieutenant Karl Johnson is a C17 pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He is stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey:

When I began pilot training, I was still somewhat under the impression that even though I wasn’t attracted to girls, I might luck out and find a sweet girl that I was compatible enough with that we could tolerate each other forever after. When I met my future close friend Sam*, I even remember thinking she might be a good “last-ditch effort” at heterosexuality. That thought alone would have set off a million warning bells in the mind of a sane man. But I wouldn’t allow myself to recognize these signs, because I thought living as a gay man would compromise my dreams of serving my country. Being the stubborn, type A personality I am, I applied the same thinking to my sexuality that I applied to other difficult situations: I’d work harder and harder until I accomplished my goals. Still, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t force myself to be attracted to women.

Unsurprisingly, things didn’t work out with that last-ditch effort. In fact, when I finally got up the courage to start putting the moves on Sam, she came out to me and told me she had a girlfriend. I couldn’t be more relieved. I could give up the charade, and I gained a great friend. We spent countless nights in each other’s dorm rooms talking way past midnight, and quickly we grew inseparable. Suddenly I had someone I could be myself around. She eventually helped me to muster up the courage to drive to the nearest major city (well over an hour away) and go to the gay bars. At the end of a stressful week of flying, studying, and pretending to be straight, it was nice to be able to let my guard down and dance.

My classmates started to take it personally when I would miss their Friday night outings. I didn’t go to the city every weekend, but it was enough to make some of them take notice and get upset. It didn’t take long before the double life took its toll. My friends would ask if I’d be around to join in their plans, and I found it was easier to dodge the question, then not show up. A rift developed between my classmates and me. I understand why they were offended; I never provided a real explanation as to what I was doing or where I was going, even if it was as innocent as having pizza and watching a movie with Sam.

The distance eventually grew. My friends got tired of me bailing on their plans, so they stopped inviting me. At first this upset me, but I also knew the distance made my double life easier to pull off. Soon they even stopped asking what I did over the weekends— even though in reality I was at home alone studying most of the time. The less information I divulged about my relationship with Sam, the more serious they assumed things were between the two of us, and the more they left me alone. Toward the end of the yearlong program, I knew I couldn’t keep up the lies and evasions. I hated pushing away people who should have been my closest friends and I was tired of hurting them.

As a last hurrah, my flight class had planned a trip to Dallas. It was a long weekend and just a few days before we were to find out the aircraft we were going to be assigned to for the rest of our Air Force careers. I was just weeks away from finishing one of the most stressful years of my life, and I wanted to spend some time having fun with my classmates, like old times. I toyed with the idea of coming out to some of the guys I was closest to and felt I could especially trust.

We wanted to go out with a bang, so we celebrated all weekend. There was a Steak ’n Shake next to our hotel, and in our state of half-drunken stupor one night, a milk shake sounded amazing. My two close friends Don* and Ken* decided to join me. We sat down at a table and put our orders in with a particularly flamboyant waiter I’d made eyes with the minute we walked in. As we waited for our shakes, my friends asked me about what Sam and I were planning on doing after pilot training. Once again I insisted we were just friends.

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Ken said. Suddenly my heart skipped a beat. I saw my opportunity to come out to them without the long, awkward buildup. I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t take it, so I removed my eyes from his, looked down, and replied: “I know.” They were both eager to hear what I finally had to say. I couldn’t make eye contact with either of them out of fear and shame. I assured them they wouldn’t like the answer, but was still resolved to tell them.

It was no sooner than the words “It’s because I’m gay” were on my lips that Ken interrupted me, saying, “If I find out you’re a fag, I’m going to beat the living shit out of you right here and now.” His words stung and I felt my face go flush. At that very instant our gay waiter dropped off our shakes at our table. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who noticed the appalled expression on his face. Not another word was spoken on the subject for the rest of the night. I stared at my Oreo milk shake and did everything I could to hold back my tears.

To this day, I don’t blame Ken for his ignorance. If we were both sober and I had approached the subject with him in a more considered way, I think he would actually have been fine with it.

Sadly, the conversation did one thing for me: it affirmed my decision to stay in the closet.

I can’t help but feel robbed. I feel I was robbed of twenty-plus of the closest friends I could have ever had. Instead of enjoying what should have been some of the most memorable years of my life, I spent them hiding, lying, and pushing people away. I will never let this happen again. Now that I am able to come out, I hope my explanation of what I have done will make at least some sense to my buddies from my pilot training days.

Master Sergeant Alexander* has been in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than 17 years:

When I was a second-cycle drill instructor at Edson Range in 2004, I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a recruit emotionally break after disclosing to his chain of command that he was gay. His name was Recruit Jordan*. I don’t know if he came forward as a means to get out of the Marine Corps or if he felt morally compelled to tell his senior drill instructor (DI) about his sexual orientation. Apparently he had received a letter from his boyfriend, who could not accept the fact that he was joining the Marines—he didn’t want him to go to Iraq and get killed. This was the year when the Fallujah battle was at its peak. Unfortunately, his boyfriend broke up with him and Jordan became depressed.

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1. MarineSergeant1 said... on Jun 11, 2013 at 12:40PM

“Even those of us who received an Honorable Discharge for just being gay were affected as well. We were humiliated, emotionally abused, branded and scarred for life. NONE of us should have to beg a discharge board for an upgrade. We demand redress and a sincere apology from the nation we so love, but which stabbed us in the back. ALL OF US need justice now, and no more trauma of opening deep, heartfelt wounds.”


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