Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m self-confident. I’m intelligent, I’m honest (sometimes brutally), and I will sacrifice anything–short of my integrity–for people and causes who need my help. I am willing to learn, I challenge people, and I expect people to challenge me in return, because I know the result will be better and clearer understanding. These things make me who I am, and they make me a good Marine. In fact, they make me good at just about everything I do, and they are the same things that drive me to work harder, do more, and push those around me to do the same. Even equipped with this knowledge of myself, I struggle to maintain the level of strength it takes to meet the challenges I face on a daily basis as an openly gay Marine.
I have impossibly high expectations for myself, and I have a tendency to place those expectations on others as well. This tendency means that I am often disappointed in myself, I am sometimes ashamed by my own shortcomings, and I am occasionally frustrated by those around me. I try hard to remember that this frustration stems from people’s failure to meet expectations that were placed on them by me, and therefore it is misplaced and unfounded.
I believe that good people don’t set out to make difficult the lives of others. I believe that although everyone has the capacity to do good, their own beliefs can lead them to do bad. When it’s inadvertent, it’s excusable, because I believe that the motivation is sometimes as important as the action. For example, if someone is hurting me and they don’t realize it, or if they knew they were hurting me they would stop, then I can excuse that. On the other hand, if someone is hurting me and they know they are hurting me, yet they continue to hurt me, I can’t excuse it. When it is others being hurt, I will do my best to shield them from the blows. I will try to absorb the blows and fight back as I am able.
It should come as no surprise that, despite the repeal of DADT over 18 months ago, there are people who don’t want gays serving openly in the military (and by using the term “gays”, I don’t mean to exclude the rest of the LGBT community, but rather as an easier to employ collective term). In fact, there are a great many of them. Some of them are religious leaders or followers who oppose open service solely from religious perspectives. Some are high-ranking officials who cite military readiness or unit cohesiveness. Some are Marines who think that gay Marines who do the same job are an affront to their manhood. Trust me, there are still a lot of people with a lot of reasons to oppose open service and equality for military gays and their families.
I know because I hear them every day. Sometimes at work, in passing, perhaps in a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear. Sometimes when I read news of a preacher who likens us to murderers or pedophiles. Sometimes when I listen to politicians trying to appease their conservative base.
But beyond the specific reasons, the explicit hatred, and the blatant homophobia, there’s a much more subtle component. This part comes from feeling excluded from–or even not expressly included in–the communities we live and work in. For example, in the fall of 2010 before DADT repeal had been signed into law, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James F. Amos introduced his wife Bonnie at a town hall meeting aboard MCRD San Diego as a key element of his success in the Marine Corps, just days after testifying to Congress that repealing DADT could be harmful to the military. To the audience that day he said Marines’ families strengthened the Marine Corps, while to the world he had said that openly gay Marines would weaken it. The message to me was clear: my service was worth less than that of a straight Marine. Without explicitly saying it, and perhaps even unintentionally, he had excluded me from being a full member of the organization I have dedicated my life to serving.
To his credit, General Amos has since held true to the commitment he made to “step out smartly to faithfully implement this new law“. Just last week, in response to the exclusion of a same-sex spouse from an on-base spouses club at Ft. Bragg, he issued guidance that same-sex spouses were to be allowed membership in spouses’ clubs if they wished to operate on base.
Despite these efforts, though, the feeling I have on a daily basis in the Marine Corps, and from conversations I have with fellow Marines, is one of accommodation or tolerance rather than acceptance and value. When DADT comes up at work, it is still in the form of, “what do we do with them” or “how do we handle them“. Although I don’t know what it’s like to be an ethnic, racial, or gender minority in the Marine Corps, I imagine the feelings are similar. One difference, though, is that gay people don’t look outwardly different from straight people. Whereas most people would have the sense not to make racial jokes in a room where they see a person of color, my presence in a room doesn’t give the same warning, and unless I say something, I think it’s more likely that I’ll hear offensive jokes and language. Couple this with the greater social acceptability of homophobia as compared to racism or gender discrimination, and even daily life becomes a persistent effort that can be emotionally and mentally draining.
Since I came out publicly on September 20, 2011, my life has become both more honest and more challenging. Where previously I had spent every day swallowing challenges to homophobic remarks that were rampant around me, I now can speak my mind. I no longer sacrifice my integrity to get through a day trying to misdirect my fellow Marines from discovering the truth of my life. But that challenge has been replaced by the daily requirement to inform those around me, to correct misperceptions, and to set an example. I know I am the first gay Marine that many of my colleagues have worked with, and that Ben is the first same-sex partner most of them have met. With that comes a responsibility to make the right impression and set the right example.
As the Marine Corps works to integrate openly gay Marines into its ranks, those few of us who serve openly have an obligation to those who will come after us. In tactical terms, it is up to us to shape the battlespace in order to create a permissive environment in which they can operate. We must be the role models for both gay and straight Marines, for allies and opponents, for civilians and service members. The pressure to succeed in this task is immense, but it is essential that we do. We are changing minds, perceptions, and history.
The struggle for equality happens daily within ourselves when we make the decision to challenge the ignorance, homophobia, and discrimination around us. The strength this takes is often underestimated, and the efforts of those who undertake it unheralded. Let there be no mistake, though, that this is the real battle, and those who fight it are the unsung heroes to whom the rest of us owe a great deal.
The wounds suffered in this fight will heal in time, and the fight will become easier as we empower those around us to fight, or to carry on the fight when we are too weak to continue. We will never know the names of all those who fight for equality, but we must value them the same. As they challenge the oppressive history of our past, they shape our future with their courage.