I’ve decided to break with a very long tradition of not writing very much about myself with a piece that actually matters quite a bit to me. Over at Foreign Policy, I have broached the subject of what a daily, lived experience is like for gay people working in national security, both during the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and after it finally ended.
Working with the military and being gay can be a confusing experience. Much of the bluster that comes with wearing a uniform involves talking about sex in forceful terms — sex as power, sex as conquest, sex as punishment. When something is bad it is said to “suck dick,” and when someone acts stupidly they’re “gay” or “faggy.” …
Congress still refuses to consider us worthy of protection from discrimination; Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people, but a Republican president could reverse it. Republicans in Congress have blocked the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBT people, for 20 years. It seems silly, in 2015, to imagine gays and lesbians posing a threat to national security, but with the recent GOP push to enshrine anti-gay discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom,” it is impossible to know whether LGBT people will be able to remain safe from discrimination while serving their country.
And yet! This is highlighting challenges. There are many, obviously many were cut for space. I am pretty sure, for example, that I have lost at least one job because I never expressed a romantic interest in a rather openly philandering homosexual superior.
And to be brutally honest, especially for people who had the misfortune of being children before the 21st century, gay people in America have been conditioned to have a defensive crouch about their sexual identity. When I was in middle school in the early 1990s, most people thought being gay was shameful. At school in McLean, Virginia, I would get bullied relentlessly for it: in the 8th grade, some boys in gym class physically assaulted me during a game of basketball, knocking me to the ground and yelling, “smear the queer” while kicking my curled up body. By the time the gym teacher pulled them away, they had broken my collarbone. The school didn’t even suspend them; they considered it the sort of normal fracas that boys get into.
The sense that you are a target of violence and you have no real recourse creates at an unconscious level an internalized self-hatred, where you always worry you’re not good enough or a single wrong impression away from being brutalized. No matter how hard you try, it’s hard to feel truly comfortable in your own skin as an adult — you never quite feel as casual expressing, say, physical appreciation for another person as your straight friends.
If you have any public profile at all, even living in über-tolerant Washington won’t protect you. Just a few years ago, during a disagreement over some foreign policy issue, a self-identified left-wing writer decided to troll through an old diary I stupidly posted online when I was in college. There, I detailed struggles I’d faced when I was younger: alienation at school, the challenge of accepting who I am as a gay man, and so on. He posted it as something to sneer at, and his commenters followed suit. One even dug up a four-year old Grindr profile and posted screen grabs so people could mock my appearance. On social media, they adopted a reliable means of harassing people: tagging you in a post with something objectionable (in this case, a picture of my face with variously shaped penises photoshopped into the frame, though one enterprising troll photoshopped my face onto a gay pornographic film still), and then deleting the post after about fifteen minutes or so. Under the abuse reporting terms Twitter had at the time, it was impossible to get those accounts banned for it.
This shouldn’t be too surprising: just as the right wing likes to trot out LGBT rights as a wedge issue when condemning Russia but does very little to advocate for gay rights in America, so too does the left wing use its official, rhetorical support for legal gay rights as a shield when its less savory members rely on homophobic slurs in an ideological argument. Liberals will object, and say of course not that can’t possibly be true, but when so few offer support during one of those bullying campaigns, it is hard to take them very seriously.
Besides which, silence is easier. You avoid so much trouble. Being openly gay can essentially trap you in the policy ghetto of only working on gay rights issues. I have seen some gay conservative writers trade on their sexuality as a prop (“I am a gay foreign policy writer,” one brags on his social media profiles, as if being gay makes him better at foreign policy), and when you do that you’re stuck always commenting on LGBT issues. Even when you segue into other topics, you’re still “the gay writer.” It is one reason why I have never referenced my sexuality or the nature of my marriage in any of the hundreds of articles I have written on national security issues until now. It is yet another way silence is easier than honesty.
That being said, and this part is important, being gay is really not a big deal anymore. Everything that I am documenting above are things that have happened over the course of nearly a decade — single events, spread out over time. There are lots of little micro-aggressions that get on your nerves, and can sometimes result in feeling beaten down, but they’re not different than (and if anything, they pale in comparison to) what others, especially women face.
And to put a very fine point on it: 99% of all the people I have ever met in the field have been at the very least outwardly respectful. Especially in uniform — there are some doofuses, but even their friends rejected their disrespect. Most simply don’t care, which is a debate for the queer activist community (should being gay be mundane or special and even a bit deviant), but not really for America, with a capital A.
In other words: this debate is over. What I document above in FP is the dregs of history, the Kim Davis types who think they’re holding out for principle but who will only be embarrassed the moment they recede into the past. So this sort of thing is interesting to note, but I also think it is important to keep in mind that it is, at the absolute most, a rapidly obsolete experience. Things really do get better, and I am all the more happy for it.