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In & Out of the Closet: A Sailor Recounts DADT’s Waning Days

by Shaun Knittel
Contributor
Friday Mar 18, 2011
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Serving my country as a U.S. sailor was an honor. I gave the Navy eight years of my life; in return I learned courage, honor, and how to "get the job done."

When the nation sent us to war, I went. When we were called upon for humanitarian aid, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I wore my uniform with pride even though the Pentagon told me I had to serve in silence.

Throughout my entire military career, which began just weeks before the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the discriminatory policy banning open gay service known as "don’t ask, don’t tell" loomed close. Now that DADT is a thing of the past (or will be once President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates hammer the final nail into its coffin) I can’t help but feel like this is a step in the right direction for our nation and the gay movement.

"Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t join" never applied to me. When I signed my life over to Uncle Sam in 2001, I did so as a 21-year-old out gay twink. I was what some would describe as "butch" so I didn’t pay DADT much attention.

"How bad could it be?" I thought. "Just don’t look at any guys in the shower and do your job and you will be fine," I told myself.

For the most part I was right. But what I didn’t count on was how much I grew to despise the closet. During the dark days of DADT that is what service uniforms became for us gay boys: a closet. You can train in them. You can die in them. But don’t you dare have sex in them.

The deal was, you weren’t allowed to tell anyone that you were gay. Likewise, you command was prohibited to ask you if you were gay. However, throughout my entire Navy career, I was asked on more than one occasion and I suspect many others were too. When I enlisted I signed paperwork that spelled out just how non-gay the military required me to be.

The Pentagon went as far as to define what a homosexual is and what conduct was considered to be gay. On paper I was a flag-waving patriot who chased women. In reality, I was a rainbow-flag waving queer who chased after men. The "other" life was the hardest part. Two sets of clothes, two sets of friends.

Surprise! Plenty of Gay Men & Lesbians -- & Everyone Knows!
The ironic thing is that I served with a very large number of gays and lesbians and an untold amount of bisexual guys and gals. There is an estimated 65,000 LGBT service members currently on active duty;

I think that is a low estimate. Thanks to all the gays before us, there was an underground network for us to find each other. Social networking sites like Facebook or online dating and hookup sites like adam4adam made it easy to develop a gay family at your command.

The joke was, after you were checked-in to your new command, your orientation and real introduction would come from the gays at that command -- your new family for however many years you would be stationed together.

The aircraft carrier I was stationed on became a floating bathhouse.

Sex was everywhere. In my experience, I found that whenever gays were on deployment, the sex-drive went into overdrive. I often joke that the aircraft carrier I was stationed on became a floating bathhouse. The rumors are true; straight guys wanting head, gays hooking up in the bathrooms, etc.

I even got a blowjob from my "boat boyfriend" in the bomb farm (where the ordinance men assemble and store the bombs). In many ways, being young and gay in the Navy was like being in a real life porn movie.

There were many problems with DADT, mainly because it was a subjective policy. The military does nothing without consulting a manual. All military law and conduct is dictated by a set of rules called the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

If a servicemember gets a DUI, the commanders know how to punish the offender. This applies to any number of infractions that a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine might incur.

With DADT however, the punishment or discharge was left completely up to the discretion of the commanding officer. In other words, if you had a progressive, left wing Skipper, chances are you would receive an administrative discharge and get to keep your benefits. However -- and this was true with most cases -- the commanding officer could kick you out with an other than honorable discharge and strip you of all VA benefits. A career ruined. A future blemished.

Homophobia? Never Experienced It
In the 10 years I wore the uniform-turned-closet, I never once felt like my fellow shipmates were homophobic. I was out to many of them. We would openly talk about it. I answered their questions about butt sex, how they should reunite with the gay cousin they disowned when they were bigoted, among other things. The straight boys would even go with me to gay bars, just to see what all the fuss was about.

I honestly can say I never had anyone tell me that they thought gays shouldn’t serve openly. Some of my shipmates even nicknamed me their Leading Gay Petty Officer. We were a crew and a family. To this day many of these brave young men are still in my life.

The country has changed. I witnessed the transformation while I was still serving. The talk within the military was "when" (formerly "if’) would DADT be repealed. Sure, not everyone had the positive experience I did. I wasn’t delusional; I knew that I couldn’t be out to everyone (especially my commanders),

But in all honesty, my fellow men in uniform didn’t care about my sexual orientation. At your command, regardless of what rank or level of experience, you are judged on your ability to do your job. As long as I did what was my charge, I excelled.

I am proud of all of the gay and lesbian troops that are serving now, and that have served. It is estimated that there are over 1 million LGBT veterans. I salute them. We really understand the words "community" and "family" because we were forced to form them.

Some of the best and brightest people I know are gay service members. I served to protect the freedoms of all Americans - hetero and gay alike. I left military service on my own terms. I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t die, I didn’t get injured and I wasn’t kicked out for violating DADT. I served under the discriminatory policy and have no love loss seeing it go.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.

Comments

  • Anonymous, 2011-03-30 15:07:40

    Lucky guy! This experience is a seemingly rare romanticized experience of military life under DADT. I avoided military service because of DADT, but I kind of wish I had gone for it and had an experience like this.


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