“Had your homosexuality been disclosed to your recruiter upon application for military service, you would have been found ineligible for enlistment in the Army.”
With that one phrase on my record, I was outcast and branded.
From 1980 until 1990, approximately 17,000 military personnel were discharged from the military for not being straight. I was one of them. In December 1990, during the last gasp of discharges before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and shortly before my Army family—my fellow Arabic linguists—shipped to the Gulf, I was thrown out for “Fraudulent Entry.” In a time when we were being asked to make certain our life Insurance and wills were ready in case something happened in combat overseas, I was tossed to the side, my chosen family torn from me.
All because I refused to lie. They asked, I told.
It’s never that simple, really, but the end result is the same: rejection and separation.
I was raised the son of a preacher, in a strict religious family. My childhood was built around a life of serving others through my church. My own dreams, however, revolved around attending West Point. The Academy looked attractive to me, and not only for the uniform or prestige. It was a clear path of service, and possibly a definition of my life. Finishing high school early and living overseas as an exchange student threw that plan off. Instead, after returning to the States, I attended a Bible College. One year at that school put me so far in debt that I had no way forward. Enter an Army recruiter, who showed up one night at the full-service gas station where I was working. He promised money for education, bonuses, and that I’d be able to learn Russian (one of the many languages I’d studied, though not one of those I was proficient or fluent in). I’d been contemplating the Coast Guard, as the ocean is a passion and a need, but being land-locked in a hot climate meant a dearth of Coast Guard recruiters. The possibility of a way to get into West Point as an enlisted soldier was another enticement. So, the Army got me. During my recruitment, I revealed to my recruiter a couple of sexual acts—consensual and non—but he said that didn’t matter and failed to pass them along.
I tested high for language aptitude, had my contracts in writing to be a 98G (crypto linguist) in Russian, and was all set to go. Even when, after Basic, I was sent to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) for training in Arabic rather than Russian, it still seemed there was a reason. I worked hard outside of my Arabic coursework to test out of additional college courses, on the theory this might help in an application to the Academy. I had a home. I had a path forward—in service and for my life. I dedicated myself to the thing I felt I was built to do—serve.
With the security clearance required for my job, I was subject to additional interviews while at DLI. I’d been through a couple after enlistment and at no time beyond that first talk with the recruiter had I been asked about homosexual acts. That drought ended during a random security interview near the end of my language training. I was directly asked if I’d ever had any “homosexual experiences.” They asked, and once again, I told. Because I didn’t think it mattered. Within a couple of days after that interview, I was notified I would be separated.
I fought my discharge. I honestly didn’t believe I was gay at the time—blind innocence, a very cloistered upbringing, and my desire to serve let me think that I wasn’t. Youthful explorations and abuse didn’t make me gay, did they? I was just me, someone whose main goal in life was to serve, and whose path forward was now turning to rubble. They held on to me for several months, during which time I worked as an aide to the head of the Romance Language School, with the possibility—and hope—I might be kept as Arabic linguists were in demand. As my friends and I were preparing wills and life insurance, as Desert Shield and tensions in the Middle East ramped up and we were being told deployment was a near certainty, I was in limbo, not knowing whether I would be staying or going.
During those months, commanding officers on the base and other soldiers I trained and worked with fought for me. There were also those, however, like a sergeant in my company, who used my status as an excuse to harass and threaten me, even going so far as to accuse me of “corrupting” my fellow soldiers.
In the end, I gave up the fight, though through the recommendations of those officers I received an Honorable Discharge, rather than the General label that most in my situation had forced on them. I lost my GI Bill benefits, however, along with anything else I might have earned. Everything I had worked for, and planned for my life—all my dreams of a life of service to others and goals for education—were gone in an instant. My discharge was finalized a few days before Christmas 1990.
The Army seemed to have known who I was before I did, declaring me to be something I wasn’t yet ready to accept or admit.
So while my friends headed to the Gulf, I was starting a completely different life. My Army family—my brothers and sisters who I’d trained with, cried with, laughed with, argued with, done stupid things with—were being sent to danger and I wasn’t there. I couldn’t have their backs, doing what we’d trained for as a family. A few short months later, when my closest cousin, an Army Reserve combat engineer, died in the sand I couldn’t be there, only seeing him again at his funeral. I felt helpless, alone, and ashamed. Even though I had no control over the situation, I felt guilty for not being there with them in the suck.
With nowhere else to go, no money, and now no direction in life, I returned to school at a state university where tuition was lower. I survived off student loans and working multiple jobs. I slept on couches and on the street. I bounced from one field of study to another, constantly searching for a place and a purpose. I explored social groups and ways to help the community. And, I discovered myself—or rather, I allowed myself to step beyond the confines of what I had always been told I was “supposed” to be, and allow myself to be honest. I fought a long hard battle to accept myself—having to overcome everything I’d been taught as a child—and began to come to terms with being gay. Living a lie—what my parents, the Army, or the world insisted I should be—was killing me. So I came out. I refused to hide when it came to others, but the hardest part may have been learning to quit hiding from myself.
When people asked, I told. When the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was being discussed in 1993, I became the go-to guy for the local news channel on the subject—a very public coming out to one and all of my relatives who lived in the area. And I lost another family.
One thing about being LGBTQ+, and having been rejected by our traditional bases of support: We often learn to create our own families. We gather people to us, creating an umbrella of acceptance and love. We pull in those who might need us, and those who might have no other place to be. In the years after my discharge, I discovered ways to help others. I marched with Queer Nation and ACT Up, I fought political battles against groups trying to codify their homophobia—or racism or misogyny—into law and who quite literally spat on and beat us for being different. I helped organize LGBTQ+ student groups and worked as a suicide prevention counselor. I studied, and taught, and learned, and spoke out. I created a life and a family for myself, and I found my voice.
Through the years, however, I often felt something was lacking. The good works I did seemed piecemeal and disconnected from a larger picture. I missed that feeling of being part of something bigger. I mostly avoided veterans’ organizations, feeling out of place in what were often racist, misogynistic, and homophobic ranks. Even if there might have been a place for me among them, I felt sure that as soon as I submitted my DD214— which, despite the Honorable discharge, still carried the words “Fraudulent Entry”—I’d be instantly branded.
I rejected my veteran status and avoided mentioning my Army service out of fear of exposing myself. Yes, I’m proud of who I am, and unwilling to remain silent, but I’m also tired of throwing myself into things and then having to deal with the homophobia, with the idiocy—of everything being a constant battle and a fight. Though I am not ashamed and have spent much of my life openly fighting for rights and recognition, being forced to be on guard and justify my life on a daily basis—to be confronted with rejection and dismissal—can be exhausting, and even overwhelming. I still carried the guilt I once felt and spent years trying to shed myself of its stigma. A stigma I neither earned nor deserved.
Eventually, I stumbled upon Team Rubicon. On the surface, it looked great—a way to give back and possibly become part of a group steeped in service through shared sacrifice. Team Rubicon had a diversity statement, it seemed legit, and I felt a calling I hadn’t in a long while. So I signed up, and within a couple of weeks, I was headed to North Carolina on my first operation, in response to Hurricane Florence.
I was full of trepidation before that first operation. I refuse to hide, to be someone else, but over the years I’ve learned to steel myself for poorly disguised looks and rejection. Interactions with other groups had left a bad taste in my mouth. Upon my arrival, however, I threw myself into the work and the service, alongside others who were there to serve and give of themselves, and I was accepted. We were all there for the same reason, to get shit done, and that’s all that mattered. The sense of shared purpose I had long missed—of diving into the suck together and coming out the other side a family united—was very real.
We’ve made so much progress over the 30 years since my discharge. Corporations may use Pride month as a marketing tool, but the fact that gay men and women are able to be visible on a large scale, or in an organization like Team Rubicon, can save lives. The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011 means others won’t be stripped of their families—their brothers and sisters—or carry the guilt and shame I felt, just for the “crime” of being honest. Some groups talk a good game, but in all my own experiences, Team Rubicon lives what it preaches.
I’ve found in Team Rubicon a place where I can be open and honest about my life and my love—all while teaching, learning, growing, and making a difference. It has become the family long ago stripped from me; the family where we all share a common cause and mission—a need to serve others. My work with Team Rubicon has helped me move beyond the damning judgment found on a slip of paper—a judgment composed by a flawed system long ago—and forge ahead into new realms of service. I’ve found in its ranks a family of open arms and caring hearts who accept and embrace one another’s journeys and struggles.
I’m a Greyshirt not only because of who I am now but because of where I’ve been.
You ask, I’ll tell. You talk, I’ll listen. And then, we’ll wade back into the muck and the suck together.
Editor’s Note: Danny’s story also recently appeared in LGBTQ+ Nation.