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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.

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.

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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.

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".

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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.

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.

When my partner and I came together, I was five years from my earliest retirement date. This was difficult for me not being able to share with my peers anything about the love of my life. I evaded questions about what I did on the weekend or who I was dating. Keeping my private life and my professional life completely separate took much effort. Keeping the balance between the two became harder and harder each year. I loved being in the Navy and serving my country and would have found no greater pleasure than to continue with my career, but the burden of keeping my sexuality secret was too great. I elected to retire as soon as I was eligible.

When I retired from the Navy in 1991, my partner and I moved to Texas. I came out to my Navy friends who accepted me for who I am much to my surprise and relief. While getting graduate degrees at the University of North Texas, I spent 20-30 hours a week working with AIDS community organizations as a volunteer. I supported the Human Rights Campaign, especially their annual Black Tie Dinner in Dallas. As my education continued and I was able to begin providing psychotherapy to clients, I continued my volunteer work in that area. I felt the need to pay back to the gay community for all the brave men and women who had fought for my rights as a gay man. My partner and I went through a civil union in Vermont when it became legal in 2000. We went to Canada and married when it became legal there in 2003. And for the past 25 years, we have been able to forge a lasting relationship that I cherish dearly.

When President Clinton talked about an executive order in the early 90's to allow gays to serve openly in the military, I was excited. The resistance from Congress and the Pentagon, however, resulted in a new law known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Having been in the Navy for 26 years under the old laws, I initially thought this was advancing the cause. At least gays could serve and the military could not ask. I had thought that this was a temporary solution to the resolution of the problem and would be done away with in a few years.

As time wore on, I became more active in fighting for gay rights, I joined two organizations that supported gay and lesbian service members, the Service Academy Gay and Lesbian Alumni and USNA Out (the Naval Academy alumni organization). I joined my peers in writing letters to Congress, making phone calls for support of repeal, and making myself available to support active duty members who were living under this law. Don't Ask, Don't Tell just did not want to go away. In my efforts to publicize the stand for repeal, I published five articles about gays in the military in OpEdNews. But my small efforts were pale in comparison to those who went on television, testified before Congress, used the internet to organize, or stood up for themselves and were discharged for admitting who they were.

With a persistent, logical argument, supporters of repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell have prevailed. As of 12:01 Eastern Time on 20 September 2011, my dream of gays serving openly in the United States Armed Forces came true. But the fight for rights is far from over. The repeal of DOMA must be next. My civil union in Vermont that is now a marriage and my marriage in Canada must be recognized in all 50 states, not the 10 and the District of Columbia that it is now or downgraded to a civil union or domestic partnership in other states or simply not recognized as it is in Tennessee where we live now. Those active duty gay and lesbian service members who want to get married legally within the United States still have an obstacle in the way. The federal government will not recognize that marriage and their spouse cannot even get an ID card to allow them access to the base like heterosexual spouses get. Their spouses cannot access the privileges without an ID card; much less receive benefits from the government like heterosexual spouses.

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The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unfairly discriminates against the gay and lesbian population as well as the active and retired military personnel. It is time to repeal DOMA now.


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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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