08/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

People in Boxes

I'm thinking about compartments, and how we -- all of us, to an extent -- put our lives into little boxes, this one for family, that one for friends, another for work, school, etc. Another way to say it is that we all wear masks of one kind or another, for one occasion or another, for one reason or another.

It used to be that many gay men and women wore masks most if not all of the time, but we like to think those were in the bad old days when being gay was a social stigma that people were afraid to admit to -- and with good reason. In Oscar Wilde's England and more recently in Georgia and Texas in the United States and many other places as well, to say that you preferred your own gender was a quick road to disgrace and worse. It still is, in some places. Try coming out in Saudi Arabia, for example. Get caught in the act and it's seven thousand lashes. That's right. Seven thousand lashes. I am not talking about the 19th century, folks. That happened last year. The law was merciful, however: the lashes weren't all meted out at once but divided into an unspecified number of sessions. I guess they wanted the victims to survive so the full seven thousand strokes could be inflicted.

Not very long ago, being gay and proud was an oxymoron. If you were gay, you were not allowed to be proud. You had to keep it secret, be ashamed of it, deeply ashamed. And not only you. If your family and friends knew or suspected your secret, they too were brought into the network of shame. If you were proud, you were not gay by definition. To say, "yes, I'm gay," all too often brought an end to any serious professional life, and to act on it might well land you in prison. For that we got some great literature -- Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," to cite just one example -- but I'm sure Wilde would have gladly forgone the largely posthumous praise that work brought him for a life without social ostracism, financial ruin, and the horrors of a Victorian prison. Of course, prison sentences were meted out more recently than that -- within living memory, if you're old enough.

All that has changed dramatically, the result of what our opponents, like the obsessed Elaine Donnelly, would describe as forced "social engineering," compulsory cohabitation, and all that. I would say that it is the result of something else entirely, that it is the result of society's becoming more honest, more open, more accepting of people's differences -- more tolerant, in a word.

With one exception, and that exception is the military. Retired Navy captain Joan Darrah testified at last week's House hearing on Don't Ask, Don't Tell that for most of her naval career she put her professional life in one compartment, the life she shared with her partner in another -- and the compartments were never allowed to meet. The mask she was forced to wear in the Navy, if she wanted to keep her job, she could take off only in the privacy of her home, and there was no real security even there. Someone might know, and tell, and Captain Darrah would be out of the Navy and a pension.

In the current New Yorker, there is a long and deeply moving tribute to Major Alan Rogers, an exemplary soldier who was killed two months into his third tour in Iraq earlier this year. Major Rogers's life was compartmentalized, too. One large compartment was the Army, which he loved. But there was another compartment. In fact, there were many other compartments and one of them was reserved for the gay Alan Rogers. His sexuality was one aspect of Major Rogers's life, but only one of many. Major Rogers was a religious man -- an ordained minister, in fact -- a scholarly man who pursued two master's degrees, and a loving man. People are complex creatures, not easily pigeon-holed.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Alan Rogers was the number of people who considered him to be their closest friend. Ben McGrath writes in the New Yorker, "This may have been Rogers's singular gift: an extraordinary ability to read the anxieties of others, and to offer a suitable version of himself to fit the situation."

It is a great pity that the suitable version of himself that he was forced to offer the United States Army could not include the version of himself that joined American Veterans for Equal Rights, an organization of gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans, and that allowed him to support the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He asked in a letter of intent that was to accompany his will that funds from his estate be given to both organizations as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yes, it is a great pity that he could not offer the Army for which he gave his life a more complete version of himself. And it is inexpressibly sad that in that same letter he wrote, "My only regret is that I have never found that special one to grow old with and watch the sunset with."

The Army and the United States Congress wouldn't let him.