My Niece's Gay Boyfriend

Progress can be a strange animal. Case in point: My niece’s gay boyfriend.

The first time my husband and I met Jim, we raised our eyebrows a bit and muttered, “Uh oh – we’ve got another TJ on our hands…”

(TJ is a friend and former coworker who was born and raised in the same small farming community where we now live. While he was growing up it definitely was not safe for him to be out. As soon as he was able – like so many before him – he ran away to the big city, came out, and was transformed from this tightly wound, fearful young man into a gregarious, fun, out and proud gay man.)

My niece’s Jim is intelligent, precocious and yes, slightly effeminate. As he was new to town, Clay and I immediately projected our own histories and worst fears, and worried that he would be bullied. We watched from afar as he has awkwardly dated a few girls, and were quite surprised when our niece started to think of him as more than just a friend.

Tonight she told me this story: A hypnotist came to school for entertainment purposes and put Jim under at the assembly, in front of the whole school. When asked what his girlfriend’s name was he said, “I don’t know.” The hypnotist told him to go ask her out on a date. Jim walked over to a cute boy and asked him out instead. The cute boy said no, and everyone laughed.

I was actually in pain hearing this. I immediately thought of the taunts and physical violence that would have resulted had this happened when I was in school.

“Let me get this straight – Jim asked a boy out on a date in front of the entire school?”

“Yeah, it was soooo funny. He told me after, ‘If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be gay. You wouldn’t believe all the man crushes I’ve had.’ ”

“He said that to you?!”

“Yeah, right in front of his father…”

“What did his father say?”

“Oh, he just laughed.”

At this point her uncle, who was in the room and was quietly listening to all this, expressed concern that she might be dating a gay man. She replied, “Oh really, I could care less. It’s no big deal. All the boys in our class act that way – you should see it. They put their arms around each other and stuff.”

(I assure you, I realize the myriad parental issues and opportunities for parent/child discussion raised by this conversation, but will not go into them here…)

But I will say this: This is the generation that will look at Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and just not get what all the fuss is about. “Just get over it, Grandpa” they’ll say, shaking their heads in disgust. The town I live in has less than one thousand residents, and is extremely conservative. The kids ride 4-wheelers, hunt, belong to FFA and show their livestock at the county fair. But nobody’s trying to beat Jim up – even after he asked a boy out in front of the entire school. In fact, they didn’t even think it was particularly strange.

Yes, I understand that Jim’s not out, and that having a girlfriend offers him certain protection. I know that real dangers still exist for him – that many locals will view him with disgust or contempt, if and when he ever does come out. But still, I bet not one single classmate (if and when Jim ever does come out) would even bat an eyelash if he told them he wanted to join the military.

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Killing a Man

I somehow thought Clay would make it through his deployment without killing another human being. If you remember, he was supposed to be in an air-conditioned office, after all.

I was out in the yard today when our niece brought me the phone (I chastised myself for forgetting to put it in my pocket).

“I really need to hear your voice…”

He explains how he was ambushed by a gunman wielding an automatic weapon from a speeding car. He tells me how he could feel the rounds whizzing by him. He unloaded on the car as it sped away, but it made it out of sight. He was not injured.

Although he gets shot at a lot, it’s usually from far away and he has nothing to shoot back at. He just calls it in for someone else to deal with. I ask him how it felt to fire back for the first time. He says it’s not the first time. I’m confused and say, “Well, besides on the range.” He says again it’s not the first time, and gets very quiet. He says he can’t talk about it, but I press him further anyway.

“It was really bad. It was a real bad mess. Things haven’t been good here. I can’t talk about it.”

I ask him if there’s anyone he can talk to about it and he says, “Yeah, my buds.” I encourage him to, but it just sounds lame.

We talk about other things, like my barbeque with friends last night. I tell him how we had a wonderful time. I leave out the part about how I almost killed the neighbor’s daughter. We were all out riding ATVs when I noticed she was missing. I frantically rode around looking for her until I saw her rig at the bottom of a ravine. As I got closer I saw her lying in front with her head jammed under the winch, pinned to a boulder. I yell for her not to move and I go for help, as I’m afraid I’ll hurt her more if I try to move it by myself.

When I return with Nate, he scrambles down as I ready my winch. Before I know what’s happening, he picks up the ATV (he’s a very big boy) and out she pops. Some nasty bruises, a sprained ankle, and a never-to-be-found shoe are all the damage. Her helmet saved her life – it had some pretty nasty scratches.

But no, I tell Clay we had a wonderful barbeque with friends. We even laugh a little.

And right now I’m numb, just numb. Too numb to be afraid.

New Duty

In a few days, Clay starts going out on patrol.

The evolution of his duties and responsibilities over there is quite convoluted, actually.  Initially, he was supposed to toil away in an air-conditioned office (read:  stare at computer screens all day…)  This fact, stated to me right after the initial “I’m going to Iraq”, actually allowed me to get up off the floor and start breathing again.  He repeated this emollient to every choked up friend and relative, too, after giving them the news.  He was very good at disarming people with it when they began to fret.

I know this will come as a shock to the military folk, but everything changed when he actually got over there.  That first phone conversation was a tough one:

“I’m not going to be in an air conditioned office staring at computer screens.”

“Oh?”

“They’re short handed and they’re splitting up our entire team.  Now I’ll be doing ________” (I can’t write exactly what he said, but it involves being in the line of fire every day.)

Pause, pause, pause…

“Are you there?”

He then explains that he is qualified in certain things, and that they are in short supply of soldiers with these qualifications, so he has a lot of holes to fill.  And every few weeks he tells me of another scarier (to me) duty they’ve added to his list.

He, on the other hand, is very calm about all of this.  He insists that his original duty would have been “boring”.  “At least I get to be outside all day”, he says.  (It was 110 degrees there yesterday, mind you…)

And so, going out on patrol is the latest addition to this ever-growing list.

I could complain about how his first easy duty was taken away, or how stupid it is to deploy so many soldiers without the proper qualifications to take care of what needs to be done…  But what it really boils down to, in it’s basest form, is:  Who would I send in his place?

Who are you, and what have you done with me?

I apparently used to have a sense of humor.

I made my first foray into the blogosphere a couple of years ago. A good friend had started a popular blog, and I thought “I can do that!” So I did. I wrote about being an out gay couple in a rural and very conservative community. I also wrote about what it was like to have a partner in the military under DADT. It lasted about a year before it became more work than fun, and then I ditched it. I didn’t write at all for another year, and only started again when Clay deployed to Iraq.

The other day I reread all of those old posts, and was amazed at what I saw – not because it was particularly brilliant or insightful, but rather because it was written by someone I no longer recognize. I had been chatty, sarcastic, funny (OK, maybe I only crack myself up, but…) So, I looked in the mirror and asked, “What the hell happened to you?”

It was a bit of a slap in the face, but it shook loose something inside of me. Later that day, when I was building fence with a neighbor, I started to joke around more. It felt good. During a break I asked her how I had changed since Clay left for Iraq. She told me flat out, without one second of hesitation, that I was lost. Ouch. My other friends confirmed that I had become “serious.”

And although I feel I am slowly rediscovering my funny bone, I can’t help but think how our soldiers must feel when they come home from war. In other words, multiply my little worries and fears by a million, and then add a whole lot of other really messed-up war experiences. Shake well, and then toss the soldier home again to pick right up where he or she left off.

Country Road

There were two soldiers on my flight home from a business trip.  One was in his civilian clothes, but had his camo pack under the seat.  I bought him a couple of drinks.  The flight attendants gave him a free meal and movie.  He seemed preoccupied – squinting slightly like he was distracted by something no one else could see.  He took what was offered with quiet and polite thank-yous, but seemed uncomfortable attracting any attention to himself.

After a few drinks (the flight attendants had given him more) he walked back to me and offered his hand.  The tension was gone, his face relaxed.  He said he was going to Iraq in two weeks.  I thanked him for his service and told him to keep his head down.

The second guy was very young and all smiles, and he was in uniform.  He shared the same MOS as Clay, and was on his way to Baghdad.  The flight attendants took care of him as well, but he couldn’t drink in uniform.

The drive home from the airport is a relaxing two hour ride through rich farmland.  As I drove around a corner on this winding road way out in the middle of nowhere, I saw a man running on the shoulder.  As I got closer I could see that he had a full pack strapped to his back and was wearing his fatigues, sunglasses and desert hat.  He was tall, athletic and broad-shouldered, and I could see the slightest beginnings of a beer belly protruding from his sweat-soaked t-shirt.  It was 80 degrees outside.  I could make no sense of the situation and my instinct was to stop and offer him a ride.  But then his story slowly unfolded in my mind.

On a typical day I could see him tinkering with the tractor, or resetting a culvert after the heavy rains we’ve had – or a million other things that farmers around here have to do this time of year.  But his Guard or Reserve unit will be heading out soon, and he’s preparing himself as best he can:  Running fully loaded, under the hot sun in a cloudless sky, through miles of freshly planted wheat, on a winding country road.

As he got smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror, I wondered if I was supposed to learn anything from these chance encounters; but I could only wonder how each of them would feel as they said goodbye to their families.  It seemed to me that the first soldier had been over there and knew what to expect.  (Perhaps a part of him was still over there.)  The second seemed eager to prove himself – he was excited and it was most likely his first deployment.  But the runner sticks out most in my mind.  The things that drove him down that country highway I can scarcely imagine.

The Sniper Walk

Clay called tonight. He told me that sometimes, when he and his fellow soldiers have to go to the bathroom, they piss into bottles and throw them away in the trash instead of using the latrine. They do this so they won’t have to do the ‘sniper walk’.

In order to get to the latrine they would have to walk across an exposed area and have to zig-zag around so the enemy snipers can’t get a good shot at them.

Then we chatted about things at home, work, how our niece is doing in school and what he did on his day off.

But then:

Clay: “Can you hear that?”

Me: “No, what?”

Clay: “Machine gun fire. Hold on… Something’s going on.”

Me: “What is it?”

Clay: “Did you hear that? Hold on… Two big booms. We’re firing something heavy. (Pause, pause, pause) Okay, it’s quiet now.”

He then easily transitions back to normal conversation.

I’m glad I couldn’t hear it. I’m even more glad that he was able to pick up our easy going conversation right where he had left off before the disturbance. I think this is a good sign about how he is coping (?)