Last night, I sat incredulous as I watched the joint chiefs of the military sit absolutely stone-faced and grim as President Obama reiterated his commitment to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell, their hands kept firmly and defiantly in their laps as most around them applauded.
I'm a gay Iraq war veteran, and I believe President Obama has been the greatest ally to LGBT people and gay veterans that we've ever had in a President. The risks he takes by simply including us in his plans to move forward with America continue to be vastly underestimated by most people, though I believe he will do much more, as evidenced by his words last night. To those supposed leaders of the United States military who watched our president with absolute revulsion as he announced his steps to end this, to those men whose faces brought back the memories of every time I was called a "faggot" while I served and forced to keep any affirmative response bottled up, thus "out" myself and lose all that I had risked everything for, I have this to say: gay veterans aren't worthless. I'm not worthless. The blood I shed was the same as every other soldier's, the tears I cried were the same, the bullets that I dodged the same; the life that I risked is the same. I'm not worthless or perverted or sick, and neither is any other gay person in this world, veteran or not. I was a gay soldier.
The time for other gay soldiers serving now to be able to say this openly is not whenever you feel comfortable, because judging from your faces that time may never come. As with any real, honest, and substantial change that has ever come, the time for this is right now.
In 1999, at 17, I entered the United States Army from a small town in Ohio, needing to find both a way in life and a way to finance the college education I so desperately needed to rise above my lower-middle class roots. My burgeoning sexuality was but a small thought in my mind, not really knowing what "gay" was, let alone whether it really described me, but that question would be answered in my mind during my formative years, which just so happened to be spent in the U.S. Army.
Now, I'm a gay veteran who risked my life for this country many times over during my time spent deployed in Iraq in 2003, and seeing their faces made my angry. It made me angry that no matter what I say or do, my service and that of many more like me is continually ignored by the dinosaurs that would be more than happy to keep DADT around forever if they had their way. They constantly make unfounded and unreliable responses about what ending it will "do" to the military, as if our military is weak enough to crumble at the very admission of homosexuality by any within its ranks. Forgive me for co-opting their slogan, but I think being "Army Strong" should be enough to handle a few gay soldiers serving openly.
I'll tell you what serving in the military under DADT did to me: It made my sexual orientation a secret shame which was never to be discussed under threat of dishonorable discharge and revocation of my benefits. It kept me distant from my fellow soldiers, for if I were to slip up and say a little too much about the real me for even a second, I couldn't trust that they wouldn't turn me in and end my career in a matter of weeks. It stunted my emotional and sexual development as a gay man so much that I was in my mid twenties before falling in love for the first time, something that happens for most people in their late teens. It sent me into the wrong places looking for the romantic affection that my heterosexual fellow soldiers were able to openly practice, discuss, and experience without the threat of disciplinary action. Most hurtful of all, being constantly reminded through DADT that my sexual orientation was bad, wrong, and perverted instilled a feeling of worthlessness in me that took years to undo following my honorable discharge from the military.
Having been an out gay man for the past 6 years following my service has allowed me to realize I couldn't have been more wrong about myself. I'm not worthless. My sexuality isn't "deviant," nor is it some secret shame that needs to be hidden so that the military establishment can continue to delude themselves into thinking they're doing the right thing by keeping military "values" firmly in line with something out of the 50's. To those "leaders," gay veterans aren't your dirty little secret anymore. We're not going to shut up, or go away, or stop shouting until those like us who currently serve are able to scream as loud as we are without the threat of disciplinary action. Thank you to President Obama for seeing this and acknowledging it, and shame on the alleged leaders of our military for continuing to remain so blind and so willfully ignorant.
Rob Smith is a freelance writer and veteran of the U.S. Army. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Advertising and Sociology from Syracuse University. His work has appeared on AfterElton.com and in USA Today, and he is currently working on a memoir detailing his time spent in the Army. Smith currently resides in New York City.