We got a cab to the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego and walked to the entrance. Standing there and looking around to see Marines throughout the lobby, we both thought, “What the hell are we doing here?” We looked at each other, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. We were careful from the very beginning not to be too close to each other. At one point, while the one of us who passed land navigation as a lieutenant in Quantico, VA managed to get lost on the way to the bathroom, our hands bumped and we quickly pulled them back. We made our way to the bar because the glass of wine and cocktail we had while getting ready weren’t taking the edge off as effectively as we’d hoped. A Marine I knew from work walked up and introduced his wife.
I had gone over the next moment a million times in my mind. Was Brandon my “friend”? My “boyfriend”? My “date”? How should I represent our relationship in the most respectful way to people who might not be happy we were there together? I knew there were people who didn’t yet know I am gay (not because I had avoided telling them, but because it hadn’t come up yet in day-to-day conversation), so how would I introduce Brandon in a way that made it clear but still allowed them to avoid being caught off-guard? What about the people who suspected I was gay but that I’d never confirmed it to? How do you tell people something they already know without feeling like an idiot when they look back at you and say, “No kidding. Who didn’t know?” (Trust me, it happened plenty of times before when I had stressed about “coming out” to people who had known far sooner than I did.) I thought briefly about whether any straight Marine had ever asked himself those questions, or even considered whether it would be appropriate to take a date.
I took a sip of my drink and a nervous breath, put my hand in the small of his back and said, “Happy birthday, Corporal. This is Brandon.” Whew. One down, two thousand to go–the entire Depot was here and we were just getting started.
We made our way to the ballroom and introducing Brandon became easier as we went. As I spotted people I knew, particularly senior officers and commanders who I knew supported me, knew I was gay, and knew I had brought a date (I had planted the seed with my Commanding Officer and Executive Officer so they wouldn’t be caught off guard), I introduced Brandon and they were all as nice as could be. My Regimental Commander, a colonel, asked him if it was his first Marine Birthday Ball, I think realizing as soon as the words left his mouth how silly the question must have sounded. The memorable part of that moment, however, wasn’t the potential embarrassment of asking the gay date of the gay Marine if he’d been to such an event before, but that he asked the same exact question he would have asked any Marine’s date. I wasn’t pretending to fit in any more, trying to disguise the unique part of me that I couldn’t tell anyone about, I was just another Marine celebrating the birthday, and Brandon was just another date. Never before in my life had it felt so good to be no one special.
The rest of the ceremony went just like that. I introduced Brandon to everyone I knew that night, and as we got progressively more comfortable with the routine (and the drinks finally began to kick in), I started greeting Marines who I wasn’t as sure would be as comfortable or supportive. I was surprised by their warmth, and Brandon got some time to talk with other dates who were making fun of their Marines for all our pomp, circumstance, and strange (but very typically Marine) behavior. At one point in the evening, one of the women who works on the Commanding General’s staff approached us specifically to tell us how glad she was that we could be there together.
At the end of the ceremony we decided we would leave the ball before things got too crazy, and we weren’t sure we wanted to press our luck with dancing together. Besides, the officer in me is always inclined to leave events like that early–I don’t want to get drunk in front of the Marines, and I don’t want them to feel like they can’t be comfortable because their boss is hanging around. We began gathering our things and saying good-byes, and the usual question arose: “Where are you going now?” At every event I’d been to before–balls, ceremonies, receptions, family fun days–I had either made up a prior engagement or just claimed to be tired. For the first time, I didn’t have to lie. We were going to Bourbon Street, a gay bar in North Park, because we wanted to escape the chaos that was about to envelop the Gaslamp District of San Diego, and because after the pressure of being the only gay couple in a room of 1200 Marines and their dates we wanted to have a few more drinks and blow off some steam.
To our amazement, two of my fellow captains said they wanted to go with us. “You know it’s a gay bar right? With gay people?” They knew, and they also wanted to get out of the immediate area and the sea of Marines that were about to make the San Diego Police Department earn their night’s pay. We went downstairs to the front of the hotel and spied the long line for cabs and valets. Brandon walked up to the bell stand and asked one of the bellmen if the hotel had a courtesy vehicle. He said there was a Denali and he would see if he could drive us. When he pulled the truck around and the five of us (one officer and his wife, another officer, Brandon, and me) piled in, he asked where we were going. I told him we were going to Bourbon Street in North Park and asked if he knew where it was. When he smiled and said yes, I realized there had been no coincidence in how Brandon had chosen him to ask for the ride–not even military-grade top secret intelligence systems are as reliable or accurate as gaydar.
Bourbon Street was a blast. The staff, at first nervous when three Marines in dress uniforms with chests full of medals got out of a big black truck and walked confidently into the bar, were very accommodating. Everyone in the bar was looking at us and wondering what the hell we were doing there–I wondered, too. But when people started to see Brandon and me together, they knew, and everyone appeared somewhat in awe of what was happening. We continued our celebration there all night, more Marines and other San Diego-based service members stopping by to wish us a happy birthday, buying us drinks and having a great time.
I was overwhelmed by the whole occasion, and happily surprised at how well everything had gone and how supportive everyone had been. There was one particular moment, however, that struck me and I’ll never forget it. Brandon and I were standing in the middle of the room, him handsomely as ever in his suit after his first Marine Corps event, me in my dress blues on my 236th birthday, surrounded by an amazing group of gay and straight civilians and Marines, and I looked at him. We had survived a night I thought would never come, and with it behind us there would be many more: maybe for us, but definitely for all those who will come after we have been long forgotten. I thought to myself as I looked in his eyes that we’d done it, and I kissed him.