Last year, around this time actually, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, came to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego where I was working as a Series Commander for recruit training. I was in the middle of my second cycle in that position, and I was eager to hear what our Commandant had to say about the status of our Corps, from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to personnel issues, particularly the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I had been following the news on DADT closely for a year, for what are now obvious reasons. Gen Amos had recently testified before Congress that the existing policy was working fine and he was not inclined to repeal the existing policy while Marines were engaged in combat operations on two fronts. The results of the Comprehensive Review Working Group had been compiled and released, and the Marines were clearly the most resistant to changing the 18 year-old policy.
The general opened the session by introducing his wife, who was traveling with him. He said that he wouldn’t be where he was today without her many years of sacrifice and support. I honestly have no idea what he said after that. I was overcome by the contradiction between that statement and his testimony on keeping DADT in place and spent the next twenty minutes alternating between finding the appropriate wording for asking the Commandant a question and convincing myself that I should just keep my mouth shut. Anyone who knows me also knows that once an idea enters my head, there’s really only one way things can go–I am, after all, a Marine.
I waited for the questions to begin, raised my hand, and was handed a microphone. “Good morning, General. My name is Captain Matthew Phelps, I’m a Series Commander with India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion. Sir, in light of the recent issue of the proposed repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, can you tell us how, as leaders, we can reconcile the conflict between stressing the importance of family support for our Marines and denying our gay and lesbian Marines even the opportunity to have a family?” He responded as one might expect a man in his position to respond: Congress had asked his opinion, he gave it, and there was nothing for us to discuss until they reached a decision. A few weeks later, Congress voted to repeal the law upon certification by the President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On September 20, 2011, the law was finally repealed.
The stress of living under DADT is not something I can begin to describe. Whether you’re straight or gay, there is little that comes much more naturally than who you are attracted to. Whether you want it to be true or not, you still know, and you know that there’s no changing it. Now imagine that everything you know and love could disappear if anyone found out who you’re attracted to–even if you never acted on it. Imagine you could be fired and humiliated for it, or even go to jail. Imagine that all it has to take is a rumor or suspicion, and that an accusation from anyone could be devastating to your career. How would you deal with people you work with, who stand next to you in formation? How would you approach your job knowing that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could provoke them to taking their suspicion to your commander?
Even now, as I learn to live without the stress of hiding my sexuality from my fellow Marines, I am realizing the sacrifices that gay, lesbian, and bisexual Marines have made since even before DADT was enacted. At certain points, it was everything I could do to keep from going insane. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I searched for outlets to vent my frustration. Most often, these outlets came in the form of telling people what I could about what I was going through, confiding in friends and family, and trying to convey this frustration to the general public and anyone else who would listen, through carefully planned and worded essays, letters, and interviews.
I sent this letter to the Marine Corps Times in response to a letter to the editor that appeared in the February 2, 2009 issue, but it was never published. In May 2010, I wrote this letter to President Obama as a part of the “Stories from the Frontlines” campaign by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network but didn’t sign it, as doing so would have been a violation of DADT. I appeared as “Michael” on KABC-AM’s John Phillips Show December 17, 2010 (just days before the vote in Congress to repeal the law) to discuss my personal experiences under DADT. I worked with SLDN on arranging interviews with other various outlets and spoke with producers of some of the shows. As repeal approached this past summer, I was interviewed by Chris Heath of GQ Magazine for “Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military“, where I was quoted as “Marines #2”. For the actual repeal day, I spoke to a few news outlets in San Diego and appeared again as “Michael” in interviews on the local Fox, NBC, and CBS affiliates (links here, here, and here). I returned to the John Phillips Show (this time as “Matthew”) again on October 12. While attending the 2011 OutServe Leadership Summit in Las Vegas, I did interviews for this article in Frontiers magazine and this one in Der Spiegel, a German news magazine. Throughout all of this I became increasingly involved with SLDN, OutServe, and the Military Acceptance Project, who awarded me one of the first MAP Salute awards.
Despite all of this work with the media, I always obscured my identity not only for the sake of anonymity under the law, but also for the sake of avoiding the attention being so vocal could have brought on me and my Marines. While there was a part of me dying to just let people know and get it over with, I didn’t want my Marines to find out I was gay from newspaper headlines, and I didn’t want to give the impression that I was seeking publicity. Speaking to the press was not about recognition for myself, it was about providing a voice to those who were most impacted by DADT but weren’t being heard in the debates. It was never about me, it was about all of us. I was in a position where I felt I could speak safely and I did. As a Marine, it is my duty to defend those who cannot defend themselves, and I therefore had no choice but to seek and seize opportunities to do so.
All of the work I and countless others did had paid off and the law was history, but although that chapter was closed and that most difficult time was behind us, a new chapter was beginning. I was among the many people who thought it would be easier with DADT behind us, and in many ways it has been. Whereas I used to get frustrated trying to figure out how to answer questions about my personal life without being specific in referring to dates’ and boyfriends’ names, or even clubs and neighborhoods, I can just be honest. [Despite repeal opponents’ insistence that sexuality doesn’t come up in day-to-day military life, I would invite any of them to come with me to work and see that the opposite is true. Not a day has gone by since repeal when it hasn’t come up in some way or another.] My entire chain of command knows and has been supportive. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is where things get tough.