I've never been in the armed forces. But I did go to high school in the 70s, worked on Wall Street in the 80s, and went to prison in 2004. These experiences constitute about six of the last 32 years. That means about 20 percent of my life as an adult gay man, I have felt compelled to be discreet about my sexuality.
High school was a no-brainer, and easy to boot. Back then the kids weren't sophisticated enough to understand that a complete ease with the opposite sex wasn't exactly an indicator of heterosexuality. I found like-minded boys in the Drama Society, and one who was old for his years introduced me to New York City nightlife. I spent many a weekend in Manhattan's gay bars in senior year, lying prodigiously to my friends and family about it. I felt I had no choice if I wanted to have sex, and at 17, all boys want to have sex. (Mind you, this was pre-AIDS, and the idea that sex could lead to death was still unimaginable.)
After being completely out in college and my first years of work, I got a new job as the editor of a weekly economic forecasting newsletter on Wall Street. This was New York in the 80s, and the 20-something brokers had three interests: making money, drinking, and bedding women. On the last topic, they were extremely vocal. It was then that I realized the fear that gays would "flaunt" their sexuality was a complete projection of what straight men do routinely. I could have been openly gay at this job, but I wanted to bond with the guys as they bonded with each other, and that meant talking about women. A few of them were quite good-looking, but that never translated into sexual desire for me. As in high school, if the feeling wasn't mutual, I wasn't interested.
On the eve of my going away party, I confided in one colleague, knowing it would be all over the office within an hour. I was glad I did it the way I did, because I knew that these stockbrokers could never again say they hadn't been close to someone gay.
The next 17 years I never had to be closeted in any job, certainly not as the drug dealer I eventually became. By the time my addiction led me to prison, I didn't even know if I could "pass" as straight anymore. It wasn't a question of anything I did, but everything I didn't do. As in the military, men in prison tend to acquire a swagger, a way of holding themselves and talking that projects a certain territorial armor. My inability alone to address everybody as "dawg" made me suspect. Still, for safety's sake, I thought it wise to prolong the doubt as to my sexual preference as long as possible.
Like the majority of Americans, I look forward to the imminent repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It will be an incalculable relief for gays who serve to longer have to worry about the threat of investigation and expulsion. Still, it would be naïve to think that every gay soldier will take advantage of the change in policy. Military culture will still have the same conformist constraints built within it, and these are considerable, particularly for the great many young soldiers coming from conservative Christian backgrounds. Those who prefer not to come out just yet will continue to need our support and understanding.