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Reflections on Being Gay in the Military

By       Message Walter Barton     Permalink
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When I enlisted in the Navy, the application asked if I had had any homosexual encounters. At the time, I answered truthfully and said no. It was considered a mental disorder at that time. After two years, I managed to get an appointment to the Naval Academy from the Secretary of the Navy, Paul Nitze. Going to the Academy had only been a dream of mine and now it was a reality. Following graduation, I was commissioned and headed for a ship going to Vietnam while I awaited my class at flight school.

 

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My career as a Naval Aviator followed a fairly normal path considering the end of the Vietnam War and the glut of pilots in the squadrons. As I progressed, I began to have difficulty understanding exactly how I felt about my sexuality. Homosexuality had been removed from the disorder category by this time but was listed as a sexual orientation disturbance instead. Meanwhile, many of my peers were getting married yet I remained single. I dated some really nice women, intelligent, beautiful, successful in their careers, yet I found the attraction was not there. I really liked them, but love that was something else I did not yet understand. The odd liaison with a man was rare but I began to come to the decision that I must be bisexual. Accepting that I was gay was out of the question.

 

As a senior flight instructor at the advanced helicopter flight school, I did become engaged to a wonderful person. We shared every aspect of our lives, our expectations for the future, and our hopes and dreams. She, however, came to the conclusion that she felt uncomfortable marrying a man who would be looking at the same men she would be looking at so the engagement was off. By this time, sexual orientation disturbance was changed to ego-dystonic sexual orientation. This essentially meant that I was at odds and uncomfortable with my own self-image.

 

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I was changing duty stations at that time and on leave when I borrowed camping gear from family and drove so far up one of the tributaries of the Rio Grande in New Mexico that you could literally spit across it. There were no roads and driving my Mercedes 450SL in the woods must have been a sight. My reason for going was simple, to commit suicide. For days I sat contemplating my life and evaluating my situation. I felt my life was hopeless. My ex-finance had dumped me for sexuality issues and I had no hope to continue life. For me, the saving factor was being Catholic. I begged God to help me see the truth. I reasoned that it was worse to commit suicide than to be gay, if that is what I was.

 

For ten years the gay rights movement, the Stonewall Riots, had had little impact on me or the Navy. Gays were looked at with scorn and disgust. The American people had yet to come to terms with this lifestyle. The Navy would dishonorably discharge me if I was gay and that would be the end of the story and end to a career that I dearly loved. I struggled with my sexuality for several years until I was serving a brief exchange tour with the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

 

It was there in Christchurch, New Zealand, that I met and had long talks with a Jesuit priest. He was able to guide me through the various Biblical passages allowing me to more fully understand the contexts of the verses and the meanings behind the words. Through him, I came to the understanding that my relationship was with God and not the Church. The Catholic Church was the tool to help me develop it. With his help, I was becoming comfortable with who I was and developed a greater understanding of the differences in the human nature. This was the first time I said, "I am gay".

 

As time went on, I was increasingly more comfortable with my self-image yet very anxious about my career. The anxiety of being found out developed into a paranoia within the gay community and the Navy. I had a strong desire to serve my country and the Navy in my capacity as a naval officer; but I was torn by my innate nature to be with someone. I found in San Diego a very good friend. He became a mentor for me into the gay community and through him I found the love of my life.

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Though I was self-aware and confident in my own body, I continued to be anxious in social situations. In gay establishments, I was constantly on the lookout for anyone who might recognize me and out me. I feared being blackmailed, outed and thrown out of the Navy. I would go out with lesbians who would pose as my dates for Navy functions. I trusted few people but had a very small group of friends who knew me and protected me from others.

 

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After 26 years retiring from the Navy, then another 14 years as a psychotherapist retiring again, I have finally found time to be more active.

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