Dishonorably Discharged Diva
I’m certain that’s what the reporters would have called me, and it would have been really, really ugly.
What was it Garth Brooks said about unanswered prayers? Oh, that’s right, some of God’s greatest gifts. Well, I can assure you that She wrapped this gift with a big red bow and delivered it via my mother in 1993. There is a seventeen-year-old thank you card I forgot to send… until last year when a friend posted this video on Facebook:
Jeff Sheng talks about his faceless portraits of gay U.S. military members displayed at the Kaycee Olsen Gallery. The exhibit is called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
It is a heart-wrenchingly (for me, at least) beautiful 3 1/2-minute reminder of the reality that was almost mine. Honestly, I had totally forgotten how I’d planned, at least for a moment, to follow my parents’ footsteps right into the United States Air Force. At the time–which feels like one hundred years ago but was in fact only twenty–they were both recently retired career soldiers and military life was the only life I’d ever known.
As a little girl, I’d wanted to be a teacher but there was no money or plan for me to go to college. I’d done enough research to know that teaching required at least 4 years and likely more, and more tuition than I could conceive of. My mom had already begun a second career in civil service and with her retirement income, we didn’t qualify for financial assistance. I’d packed up my dream of being a teacher–like the final, sacred token of a childhood chapter now closed–and moved on.
I had zero sense of personal identity, no clue who I was or what I wanted to be when I grew up. Throughout my life, the U.S. Air Force provided my family with the basics one needs in life (at least as I understood it then): health insurance, retirement plan, roof over your head, work clothes, and enough extra to buy food on base and pay your utilities, plus vacation one or two weeks a year. My vision of my future was totally blank, and my parents’ choice seemed like a reasonable option for me, too.
Next: Mom shut me down. Hard.My mom shut me down. Hard. No conversation. No explanation. Nothing. Just no, you’re not going in the military. I don’t remember much about that talk, except that I was out of my mind with the hypocrisy of it. My mother had given her entire adult life (and the first 15 years of mine for that matter) to military service, and I couldn’t go in? Worse yet, she was a freaking RECRUITER for the United States Air Force. A recruiter! Her job in the Air Force was to sign people up… and she was telling me no?
My mom enlisted when women really didn’t go in, unless they were medical personnel. Her parents had to sign a waver for her to because she was a woman, even though she was 18 years old! She met, married, and divorced my father in the USAF. She built a career, a successful life for herself. She used the military to propel her from the reality of her emotional inheritance as an uneducated, poor, white-trash, hillbilly from East Tennessee into a world of stripes and medals and professional recognition. She had traveled the world.
Seriously? I couldn’t go in? I was indignant.
Well, although neither of us knew it at the time, it turns out… I am a lesbian, something I didn’t realize until I was well into my 20′s. Strangely, I was 31 before I actually understood how dreadfully incompatible my truth (lesbian) and my life were (married to a man). Coming out meant divorce–a tragic dismantling of a family blended just a few years before because he and I were… too broken to do better, I suppose–and a volume of heartbreak that still today, takes my breath away.
I left because being married, no matter how good I was at it, didn’t make me straight. That’s what “coming out” meant to me, accepting myself and choosing to live in alignment with that. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
But, what if I had been in the Air Force instead of that suburban/soccer mom/faux-blended paradise? Coming out wouldn’t just have been about breaking up a family I’d spend all my time and energy blending. For the last 18 years, being gay in the military left you with two choices: Hide or lose everything you’ve worked for, which at that point would have been 17 years. Yes, I’m talking about the possibility of losing ten plus seven years of my professional and personal life (and if you think military life is just a profession, you aren’t paying enough attention).
These are people’s LIVES we are talking about here, folks… what the hell?
Next: The end of Don’t Ask, Don’t TellBeing in the USAF and waking up to the reality that I am a lesbian would have been an ugly disaster. You see, I’m that girl… the kind who wouldn’t hide and wouldn’t keep quiet when they discharged me. I’m the one who would make the news. I know that about myself.
My mom, accidentally perhaps, saved from being the Dishonorably Discharged Diva.
She saved me from a fate served to 11,000 soldiers during the last 18 years that the oppressive Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was in place. That number shocks me. I am one person whose life story includes coming out as a lesbian and frankly, that story went well compared to many. But, for my one story–and all of the confusion, pain, and eventually freedom found in that process–there are 11,000 others for whom coming out (or being outed) included losing their military jobs in the United States of America. Yes, that’s right… the land of the free and home of the brave. That’s something, isn’t it?
Then, there the rest of them, the ones who stayed in the closet in the military. Certainly, we’ll never be able to calculate that number–the gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers who got to keep their uniforms (no calculation of the personal cost as they have been, of course) long enough to see this day, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The stories have already started to roll out. One Navy officer and his long time partner wed just after midnight. Others are coming out, telling their stories, telling their loved ones and coworkers and the world who they really are. And, these stories will certainly unfold for years to come, stories of hope and truth and empowerment. It gets better when we make it better and today, we made it better.
There are other stories too, important ones, that will make this country stronger. We must be willing to recognize the ones revealing the inevitable toll–mental, emotional, physical, relational, spiritual, political, financial, and otherwise–taken on these soldiers, the military, and our country as a whole, by this 18-year, fear-fueled failure in America’s history. The only thing that’s clear to me in this moment is that the price for imprisonment is high–and make no mistake, that’s what this was–particularly when it’s done in the name of freedom.
Image Credit: -Marlith- via Flickr