What It’s Like to Be Gay in the Ultra-Masculine NatSec Community

Originally published at Foreign Policy.

Even post-“don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s still a world of homophobic slurs and awkward questions about my “wife.”

A few months ago, I was at one of those boozy, early evening events that bind together professional life in Washington, D.C. I was there to meet a retired White House official who was holding court off to the side of the party after offering a few remarks to the gathered crowd about his career working in national security policy. When it was my turn to shake his hand, his eyes darted to the wedding ring on my left hand. “It’s great to meet you,” he said. “Is your wife around?”

It was a simple question — one most people would not think twice about. But for me, it brought up a familiar discomfort. I stuttered for a few seconds, then corrected him: “My husband isn’t here — he’s away on a work trip.” This senior official batted an eye, hesitated for the briefest of moments, and said, “That’s great,” before moving on to meet other people. He never made eye contact with me again for the remainder of the party.

Or maybe I imagined that last part — after all, people at such a senior level rarely make time for idle conversation at these events. It’s hard to tell when a subtle interaction like that is innocent or malicious. The social culture in Washington is remarkably tolerant of LGBT people — upwards of 10 percent of adults in the city identify as LGBT, the biggest percentage of any state in the country. Within the government, policymaking, and associated contractor and nonprofit industries, there are plenty of people out of the closet. But this wasn’t just any D.C. happy hour. This was an event that drew in journalists, budding pundits, academics, and policy analysts from the city’s national security community. And if the arc of the city as a whole has bent toward tolerance, those in national security, or NatSec, as it is called, have been a little slower to come around.

The NatSec community has a long history of troubled relations with its LGBT members. From the start of the Cold War, officials have thought of gays as a security risk on par with communists. In the early 1950s, Joseph McCarthy viewed homosexuality as being equally, if not more, subversive to American values as the hammer and sickle, freely mixing his disdain for liberalism with his revulsion for gay men and women. In one press conference, he told reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.” It was the suspected communists (mostly at the State Department) who we more commonly remember as McCarthy’s victims, but he persecuted LGBT people during the “lavender scare” in far greater numbers than he did any alleged Soviet sympathizers. By 1953, the State Department had fired more than 400 “perverts,” as the media called them, as compared to around 100 suspected communists.

Public opinion about alleged communist sympathizers in the government changed after McCarthy’s fall from power; government attitudes toward homosexuality did not. President Dwight Eisenhower codified the government’s stance against employing those inclined toward “sexual perversion” (meaning: homosexuality) in Executive Order 10450. The Eisenhower logic was that homosexuality was so inherently abhorrent that it could be used as a means of blackmail — that being gay meant a person was subject to coercion by a hostile intelligence agency, and thus could never be trusted in government.

It wasn’t until 1975 that the U.S. Civil Service Commission officially allowed, on a limited basis, gays and lesbians to openly hold some federal jobs — but not in national security. The CIA and Pentagon had translated Eisenhower’s order into a practice of hunting down and weeding out closeted gay and lesbian employees. Such deep prejudice was not confined to security agencies located in the suburbs of Virginia — it carried over into Congress as well, such as when, in the early 1980s, Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, summarily fired two of his aides for being gay, on the grounds that they could not get the clearance to handle classified matters. (Gays and lesbians were officially barred from holding a security clearance until 1995.)

Sometimes the homophobia within national security is official, as in EO 10450, or the codified marginalization, until 2011, of gay people in the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or DADT. But homophobia is also so baked into the foundations of the community that, recent legal progress aside, its effects still linger. It’s hard to ignore the many social cues, from the belief in a brusque toughness when dealing with crises to the relentless focus on physical conditioning even in civilian analytic jobs, that reward traditional masculinity and do not reward anything else. Hence, my own hesitation to correct someone who mistook me for straight.

And these biases only get worse once you move out of the tolerant enclave of Washington. Unlike many people who work in national security, as a senior intelligence analyst I have spent more than half of my career working outside of the district. And once you move away from the city, you are often reminded, sometimes forcefully, of the kinds of biases people still host toward you. Most members of the national security community I’ve met don’t care that I’m gay; some have become good, strongly supportive friends. A small number have been bigots.

I spent a couple of years working as a contractor in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, at a research center for the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, which embedded teams of social scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Green badgers, as many government employees and military folks refer to contractors, are universally looked down upon because of a belief that they’re little better than mercenaries, merely concerned with making money. Contractors working on-site rarely have the support of a full human resources department in the office to help with personnel issues like sexuality-based discrimination. So it was hard to know what to do when, in late 2008 after being there less than 10 months, I received an email about some office politics from one of the colonels we worked with, in which he cracked several jokes about how hard it was to have contractors working so closely with soldiers:

“Why, that’s as unnatural as two boys kissin’!”

I was 27 years old. At this point, I had only been out to my family for a couple of years and had only told a few close friends at the office (fellow contractors) that I was gay. This was my second national security job and the first for which I directly supported soldiers in war zones. I still felt unfamiliar with the social red lines in this kind of setting.

Moreover, as a gay person, when you encounter something like this, it is difficult to know what to do: Do you laugh it off and deny that person any power by pretending you don’t care that he joked about your being unnatural? Do you assume he felt no malice and decide not to make a fuss, and hope it doesn’t happen again? Or do you challenge him and risk creating an unpleasant work environment for you and your colleagues?

I approached the colonel who had sent the email, explained that I was gay, and said that I felt it was inappropriate to casually mock people like me on a government email system. His response dripped with hostility: After asserting that I was attacking his religious beliefs, he detailed his history preaching at his nearby Baptist Church. “Faggots like you don’t have the right,” he said, “to oppress Christians. That’s all liberal P.C. nonsense.”

When I complained to my boss, he wrung his hands and told me that he felt bad about it, but there was nothing he could do. What he didn’t say was that he was unwilling to endanger his company’s contract — and thus his own job — by raising a stink about some colonel saying something mean to a young person about all that gay stuff.

I deployed to Afghanistan a few months later to support some Human Terrain Teams, and my experience with the colonel prompted me to keep my sexual identity a secret. At the Combat Readiness Center in Fort Benning, Georgia, there were only group showers — not the biggest deal in the universe, but I was terrified of someone causing me grief if he knew I was gay and showering next to him. The gruff, performative masculinity of war deployment doesn’t necessarily create a welcoming environment for LGBT people.

And so, later in 2009, working in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a contractor at a military intelligence facility, I made the decision to keep my private life completely private. Although the college town is far more liberal than the rest of Virginia, my colleagues were not. One worker drove an Audi with a confederate flag bumper sticker. When my employer, a contractor, posted a “Celebrate Gay Pride” sign in the office kitchen during National LGBT Pride Month, it was defaced within a day. When the Christmas party came around, I told my boyfriend at the time to stay home and went by myself. No one I worked with knew I was in a relationship or that it was with a man. Unlike Washington, in Virginia I could be fired, without recourse, if a supervisor had a religious objection to my sexuality, since, at the time, Virginia had no laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

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.”

And these attitudes can carry over, by pundits who wish to mirror the muscular, masculine language of soldiers, into the realm of foreign policy as well. I have been called “faggy” by right-wing hawks for arguing against military intervention; liberals have dismissively made casual jokes about “the gays” when I express an opinion they think is silly — as if supporting marriage equality means they can’t be prejudiced in other ways against gay people.

Despite decades of harsh discrimination, gay people in national security have never gone away. “There are so many gay people, both civilian and in uniform, at the highest levels of the Pentagon,” said Steve Clemons, a journalist at the Atlantic who is gay and who has covered these issues extensively. But though the LGBT community might have been fairly well-represented in the NatSec world, it has only been in the last few years that those gay and lesbian people could do their jobs without fear. When President Barack Obama spoke at the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner in 2009, before DADT had been repealed, and where gay rights were being celebrated, Clemons said he advised several service members in attendance not to wear their uniforms. “There were journalists there,” he told me, “who would eviscerate anyone in uniform to make a point.” If these journalists reported on an LGBT person in uniform at a political event for Obama, the service member’s career would have been ruined.

There is no doubt that the officially sanctioned homophobia the government used to impose on people like me is coming to an end. When Chuck Hagel was nominated to become secretary of defense in 2012, the Log Cabin Republicans, an ostensibly pro-gay group, launched a well-funded campaign to portray him as anti-gay. Actual gay people who worked with him had to correct the record, and the Senate confirmed his nomination. It was a novel moment in the national security field: a leader accused of not being pro-gay enough to pass muster.

However, 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.

In mid-September, Obama nominated Eric Fanning to be the next secretary of the Army. An eminently qualified man, Fanning has spent decades working at the highest levels of the Pentagon and gaining the respect of officers and civilians alike. He also happens to be gay. Yet rather than celebrate a respected professional ascending to the job, some opportunistic politicians reacted with bigotry to his nomination. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who has never served in the military or in the Pentagon in any capacity, issued a statement immediately: “It’s clear President Obama is more interested in appeasing America’s homosexuals than honoring America’s heroes.” Huckabee is echoing McCarthy’s rhetoric — a subtle reminder of the menace that still lurks out there for LGBT people. Luckily, this time, his words seem to have generated more laughter than cheers among people in national security.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the United States has reached something of a tipping point in the NatSec community, where the old guard of bigots is fading away and the public is increasingly comfortable with gay and lesbian Americans living openly alongside them. But they aren’t gone yet, and an influential bigot in the right place can still ruin a person’s life. Our laws have not yet modernized, either: Transgender people work undercover at the CIA, for example, but the military still considers them mentally ill and unfit for service. If you are not a masculine man or a feminine woman, you still face scrutiny and exclusion.

Silence is often easier than honesty. But there are a growing number of LGBT people who are speaking out about their experiences, who are demanding we be treated with basic humanity. 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.