The sergeant and I stared at each other for a moment as the office door shut. I’m certain the expression on my face mirrored the pale, shaken one I saw on his. Only seconds earlier, we both stood silent, hands clasped behind our backs respectfully, as a noncommissioned officer stood inches from my face and threatened to end my career.
As we left the office, the sergeant searched for something consolatory to say. His words, and any comfort I might have taken from them, fell flat. I sat, staring at my computer screen, trying to recall what task I had been working on. A few hours later, Lt. Meghan Kalliavas would stop by and explain: The noncommissioned officer was the head of the unit’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program. The evening before, there had been a report of a male-on-male sexual assault in our unit. In response, and apparently to demonstrate his competency in his assigned position, the noncommissioned officer had taken it upon himself to approach the person he considered inclined toward committing a similar offense in the future: me, the only openly gay soldier in my unit.
I was fortunate that Kalliavas, the officer in charge of the intelligence department where I worked, was a woman with no tolerance for prejudice. Together we approached our unit’s leadership, where she insisted that the comments had stemmed from the representative’s own homophobic feelings and recommended that he be reprimanded and removed from his position as the unit’s sexual harassment watchdog. We never learned whether any action was ever taken against him.
This wasn’t the first time at the Second Battalion, 87th Infantry that I was targeted because of my sexuality, and a part of me marveled that it could still make my hands shake and stomach clench. I told myself that I should have built a thicker skin at this point; that in comparison to the life-or-death hardships of military life, these moments meant nothing. But by then it was hard to ignore the anxiety I felt during required social activities — “mandatory fun,” as it’s called in the military — or the tension from my fellow soldiers.
The moment I decided to become a soldier and the moment I chose to live openly as a gay man occurred so closely in time that it’s hard to remember which came first. In early 2011, I was 19 and visiting my uncle, Senior Chief Petty Officer Brandon Parry, and his family on a naval base in Naples, Italy. It was with his guidance that I enlisted as an intelligence analyst in the United States Army and with his encouragement that I came out, first to him and then to the rest of my family and friends.
Before the end of May 2011, just before I left for basic combat training, my uncle sent me to Chicago to meet his two best friends and fellow sailors, Mike Landry and Abraham Elizondo. It was still four months before the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a double-edged policy prohibiting asking any service member about his or her sexuality while enforcing a ban on openly gay service members. Mike and Abe were to mentor me on how to survive as a gay serviceman. Their lessons advocated a combination of caution and performance.
They lived together, along with Mike’s partner, Larry Hall, in a condominium just off the Wilson stop on the Red Line. Each had something to say about my upcoming service, each offering a different pot of paint to camouflage me into the background of my fellow soldiers. Abe — who had been a senior paralegal during his 20-year service — approached everything with a simple philosophy: Prove it. As long as gay soldiers kept their mouths shut, the burden of proof fell on those making the accusations. Mike, a former chief warrant officer turned military housing director, alternated between agreeing with Abe and interjecting stories about his experiences: “Yep, and he only called me a faggot once. One time, and I gave that little shit the boots. That’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t let anyone call you a fag. Because it’ll just get worse.” Even Larry, a skateboarding tech guru, chimed in, reminding me that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” wasn’t far-off.
For the next eight months, I all but ignored their advice. During basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, I confessed to my bunkmate Aaron Frick — a tall white Coloradan who converted to Hinduism sometime before enlisting — that the picture of the guy in my locker wasn’t of a friend. Frick wasn’t terribly surprised by this news. He would go on to be my roommate and best friend during our next stage of training. On Sept. 20, 2011, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, and I immediately stopped concealing my sexuality. I openly used the word “boyfriend” when describing my partner, never worrying that any of my superiors or classmates cared. I was surrounded by driven women and men focused on their careers and on forging close relationships with their peers. I wondered at how things could have changed so drastically from the time Mike and Abe had served.
The second week after I arrived at Fort Drum, N.Y. — my first and only duty station with the Army — I found death threats slipped under the door of my barracks room. I noticed the colors first. Pink, blue and yellow; strangely happy colors at odds with the words written on them. Some were simple: slurs and epithets written in thick black Sharpie, pressed so hard into the paper that it bled through. “Faggot” and “queer fag,” the notes read. A couple were more elaborate: detailed descriptions of what might happen to me if I was caught alone, and proclamations about the wrongness of gays in the military.
I read the most detailed descriptions over again, trying to explain them away as something other than what they were. Maybe they were a joke, or meant for someone else. I reached for my phone and then stopped. If I reported these and they were only a joke, then I would become “that guy.” Taking ridicule — smiling at the most vile and offensive slights with the understanding that they were nothing more than jokes — is the most important social capital in the military. Was I willing to risk losing that capital before I had the chance to earn it? I tore the bright sticky notes into confetti and tossed them into the trash.
The military is built on a foundation of earning trust and proving yourself to your peers and superiors as capable. Being new to a unit isn’t unlike being a new employee at any other job. People are cautious, even wary, until you’ve shown you can handle the work. Perhaps it didn’t help that I was an intelligence analyst in an infantryman’s world — a support soldier in a combat soldier’s unit. But none of that had been mentioned in the notes. My capability wasn’t in question, nor was my duty position. It wasn’t my effectiveness or value to the unit that elicited these noxious notes but something far removed from my control. Something that after September 2011 was supposed to be meaningless.
After a few months at Fort Drum, I discovered a group that convened for secret support meetings. No two people were similar — a woman who had been in the service nearly as long as I had been alive, a married father, an infantry soldier a rank below me. Each person identified as something other than heterosexual, but only privately. In their everyday lives, they pretended to be straight. We met in different places — in barracks rooms and offices after hours — but always in secret. Sometimes it was to console or commiserate. Other times I think it was to simply know that we weren’t alone.
During these meetings I always talked about my anxiety over not knowing who had written those sticky notes and if they were standing next to me in formation or would be the person I sat beside, alone, on my next 24-hour shift. The others revealed truths I considered much darker than my own: The woman spoke about the sexual assault she never reported during the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for fear that an investigation would unveil that she was a lesbian; the husband spoke about feeling trapped but fearing that revealing himself would cost him everything; and the infantryman confessed that he drank himself to sleep because he could never claim what he was aloud. At least I hadn’t had to endure any of their horrors, I would think. Remembering this was sometimes helpful — as if I were seeing things with greater perspective, finding the silver lining. Other times it made me nearly sick with shame to compare my fears with theirs. But I never stopped going.
I left the Army in December 2014, but I still feel as if I am coming to terms with my identity. There are moments when it feels wrong to claim my status as a veteran; as if being gay made me less of a soldier and somehow invalidated my service. These moments of vulnerability bring me back to when one of my superiors told me not to bring a date to the military ball; to when I found “Fag” spelled out in the snow on my windshield with urine; to all the times I avoided those who showed me compassion, for fear that it was a trick and that they had been the one to slip the notes beneath my door. Every memory evokes an emotion: rage that I had to serve with a constant sense of fear of my fellow soldiers; paralyzing sadness for those who endured abuses worse than I can know; and, the worst, guilt over the service members — gay or straight or transgender — who died while serving in the military while my body is still whole.
I don’t know if these feelings will ever go away. But it is when the guilt is most crippling that I remember my support group. That chance to share an unseen pain and know there were others like me struggling each day still helps me wake up each morning, pull on my boots and go about my day.
Necko L. Fanning is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of BlakeWrites, where he deals primarily with topics like masculinity and the L.G.B.T. community. Fanning will graduate this fall from the University of Michigan with a degree in creative writing and literature.