By (Former YN3) Stephen R. Lang
When the issue of repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell United States military policy was discussed in our office it brought up a lot of ghosts from my past. I had served honorably for 87.5% of my time and when they say in Boot Camp that 1 in 4 will make it to their discharge date–I would have guaranteed I would be the one. I grew up to respect authority, love America, and come from generations of proud military personnel. After a much consideration I joined the US Navy after a short failed stint with college and from Day 1 I wanted to go back. On Day 2 of boot camp we joined for America.
While in the Recruiter’s office finalizing Signing Up he asked me point blank, “Are you gay? Do you like sucking (penis)?” In January of 1993 they could ask you outright and only later President Clinton modified it. I remember arriving at Boot Camp and falling for my Company Commander. I not only idolized him as a man, a leader, and an experienced seaman but that is when I realized that my life was in jeopardy. What I mean is that you are conditioned to believe and act as they want you to and basically be like them. It is important especially for naval survival to think and act like a unified team and without it you could be flopping around in the ocean while the ship sails away.
My ship (the former) USS SUPPLY AOE 6 was the first in a class of ships and had a lot of problems with design and had many delays and setbacks. Within my term onboard, I knew well over 2,000 people personally. You grow to know and appreciate each crew member because you might actually depend on them for survival. When you are out to sea, there is no fire department or ambulance to call. Commodore is a natural progression but when confined to something like a boat out to sea, it is intensified.
I officially realized I was gay in August of 1994 and it was during the height of Anne Rice’s Vampire novels and totally identified with the spiritually wounded and existentialist Louis. This feeling of loneliness only intensified when faced with the fact that your job and your life as you know it would be over if they found out. In the midst of coming to terms with everything my friend was discharged. As he was walking down the pier for the last time I discovered a couple of friends who took me under their wings and made me realize I am ok, I am not alone, this is not horrible, and no matter what they had my back. Seniority (within the lower ranks) was loosely based on Time Spent at the command and by this time there were less than 100 Plank Owners onboard. We were special and I was sparkly.
I officially came out to a Sicilian Neanderthal worker of mine while we were scrubbing the wax off our office floor (only to put a new coat down.) He was going off on a tirade about gays and lesbians and how they do not deserve to live and have rights and I ended up screaming “You don’t know what we go through!” He fell over cut his head and had to get three stitches. It’s kind of funny to think that there is someone out there with a scar from me coming out to them.
My friends and I were actually called The Three Queens of The Supply and were The Fab Three a decade before Queer Eye. As we traveled all over the Caribbean in 1996 everyone knew, including the Captain. Things came to a screeching halt when my Captain, Executive Officer, Administrative, and Legal Officers all left within four months and were replaced with very odd Right Wingers. My direct boss was a Minister and even he thought they were strange.
What eventually led me to leaving was when the Legal Officer strategically pulled my workers aside and asked them that if they had any problems with me, my personal life affecting them, or had issues against me (wink-wink) I would be off the ship in 24 hours. I had witnessed the aftermath of my best friend getting stomped in the face in his (bed), an attempted suicide in the (bathroom) at 3 AM, but also the sad stoic faces of the Old Dogs at The Garage in Norfolk who thought they had too much to lose to ever Came Out (at work). The Navy was your life and these were the signs I saw. Four of my five direct bosses left and I didn’t want to live under a microscope so I voluntarily left.
Not every command is perfect but I honestly feel that it will be at least 10 years before gays and lesbians can comfortably serve in the military. This is a big move for the future but please do not think this will be an overnight acceptance by any means. I also do not want gay people to be outted either. Onboard ships 1/3 of the crew are allowed to constantly wear knives as part of their uniform and ¼ carry around a long steel nail called a marlinespike. I have overheard the God awful and gut wrenching intentional conversations, told outright I should die, been physical abused, and socially ostracized.
When a Plank Owner officially leaves the Navy or changes duty stations, they are announced over the loud speaker and a bell is rung in their honor. When I left, having earned The National Defense Medal, Navy “E” Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, and a Navy Achievement Medal as well as countless other commendations the new Captain denied me that honor. When that one thing you struggled and longed for is taken away pettily–it feels worse than being punched in the face. I want to finish by saying that I never stopped loving America or realizing how important the military’s role is in bringing and maintaining freedom. A certain few individuals never once spoiled my views against The Navy or my military experience. Actually, up to about five years ago, had I been given a Second Chance and allowed back, I would have gone.