Because of you…

It was 1982 – the week before Christmas – and I had just gotten my hair cut. I was in the 9th grade and had to depend on my stepfather Karl for rides downtown. He was notoriously unreliable. In fact, I ended up having my braces on a year or two longer than planned because he would forget to drive me to the orthodontist. I eventually gave up and just stopped going. My senior year they finally took them off out of pity, whereas I promptly lost my retainer a few weeks later on the drive to college, and my teeth moved right back to where they started.

This December night we were close to home when Karl realized he had forgotten to get something at the store. As we turned around Karl pulled over to allow an ambulance to pass by. I said, “I hope it’s not anyone we know.”

Winter in New England can be a wondrous time. Snow, frozen ponds for ice skating, sledding, snowball fights. But there is always that dark and dreary in-between time, before the first snow. All of the leaves have fallen, leaving the large gray skeletons of ancient trees. The grass in all the finely manicured yards is dead – killed off in November by the freezing temperatures.

That night, as we drove up to our house I saw the red flashing lights and I held my breath. Was it in front of our house or the neighbors? I couldn’t tell because it was parked right in between the two. There was a gang of people gathered at the back of the ambulance. I got out of the car and peered through the crowd. On the stretcher I saw dark blue jeans and white socks and not much more. Then someone said they had found someone shot behind the neighbor’s house. In the next few seconds I eagerly created a story in my mind: some poor homeless person had met his demise in the woods behind the house. Probably a drug deal gone bad. I actually felt relieved!

I saw my mother coming toward me from next door. She marched up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and asked me if I knew what happened. I told her my version. She bit her lip and gripped me harder, never taking her eyes off my face. “Brad, be strong.” Everything slowed down. It had just gotten dark and the bare trees and nearby houses were being lit up with the rhythmic pulsing of the red and blue lights. “Kenny shot himself.”

Kenny was our next door neighbor – the oldest of three boys – and my brother’s best friend. He was 6 or so years older than me, and I had a crush on him. I didn’t know it was a crush, really; I just liked being around him. His mom was my piano teacher, and Kenny would compliment my playing. He always talked to me like I was his equal, not like the awkward little kid I really was.

The day my brother went off to college, Kenny came a bit unglued. He took issue with the way we were packing the car, ranting and raving about how unsafe it was, and that if we got into an accident someone would surely be killed. It took me years to realize that he was in love with my brother. I drove back alone with him from campus that night. He drove recklessly in the heavy rain and we hydroplaned several times. He cursed at the bald tires but never really slowed down.

As my mom tried to shoo me back into our house the night he shot himself, something took hold of me. I refused. She ordered me. She then begged and pleaded. I told her I had to go and be with Kenny’s mom. I found her sitting on a couch in her basement, rocking back and forth. I sat down next to her and took her hands. They were purple and I feared she was having a heart attack before I realized it was really just Kenny’s dried blood. She asked me “why,why,why” over and over . We cried and held each other for an hour or so, until someone came to take her to the hospital.

After she left I decided I didn’t want the family to come home and see any blood. I called the police and asked them what I should do about it. They said, “Clean it up.” I often wonder if they knew they were taking to a 15 year old.

His parents had heard the gunshot and ran out back. His mom cradled his bleeding head in her arms as his frantic dad, covered in blood, ran inside and called for an ambulance. I wiped his bloody fingerprints off the phone, and cleaned up the rest of the house.

People were still gathered outside when I got the hose and started to wash the blood out of the yard. It was mercifully above freezing that night. Several adults tried to then take over, and I refused. Something in my eyes made them leave me alone, I think. It took so long for the water to run clear that I wore away a large patch of grass. I then went inside and called my brother at college.

In the ensuing years, I would myself go through some very dark times. And when it got so bad I thought I couldn’t live one more day with the pain and torment of being in the closet and of despising myself for being gay, I remembered that December night in the back yard. I remembered what it was like to hold Kenny’s mom. I remembered what it was like to wash his blood away. I remembered what it was like to call my brother and tell him his best friend was dead. And so I hung on for dear life. Because of Kenny’s death I was able to see through my pain and imagine the consequences of ending my own life. And, after 25 years, that is the only way I have been able to find any meaning or solace from such soul-numbing loss.

The rash of gay teen suicides in the news has brought this all back to the surface for me.  I have been so moved by the It Gets Better Project, and applaud every single person who has taken the time to make a video.  They are wicked powerful.  I especially like this one.  And this one.

I wanted to remind everyone that the entire DADT issue is predicated on the false belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us – that we have some inherent flaw that makes us unfit for duty.  THAT is the twisted reasoning behind the false arguments of “unit cohesion” and what not.  Every day that DADT remains in place is another reminder to LGBTQ youth that society says there’s something wrong with them. It says, “No matter how good you are, you’re not good enough.  You are not worthy.”

We categorically reject this assertion, and point to the tens of thousands of LGBTQ troops currently serving.  THEY show us it’s their skills that got them where they are.  THEY show us that who they love has no bearing on their abilities as soldiers.  THEY show us this every single day they show up for duty in spite of this discriminatory ban.

To the LGBTQ youth out there that are struggling, I say this: It gets better.  Love can’t be stopped or legislated away, and you will find a way to be the real you – even if it that means following your dream to become an airman, soldier, sailor, marine or coast guardsman.  We’re gonna fix that part of it for you.  I promise.

To those who oppose lifting the ban, I say this: You don’t like gay people – we get it.  There are lots of people who don’t like black people and Mexicans and Jews, too.  Hide behind whatever false arguments you want, but you’re still just a bigot.  There’s nothing wrong with us, and your days of telling us what we can or can’t do are coming to an end.

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Athena, the Ally.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with a beautiful, witty and bright young college student/activist on a recent trip to DC.  (We’ll call her Athena).  She is straight, yet takes exception to the pain and suffering caused by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  It is amazing you how much her conversation recharged my batteries.

Talking to her reinforced my belief that her generation will not stand for discrimination based on sexual orientation; in fact they just don’t get it.  They have been raised amongst out gay friends, neighbors and relatives; and have grown up seeing gay people on TV and in the movies (whereas my generation had bupkis for gay role models).

Athena and her friends go to Tea Party rallies… wait for it, wait for it… for ENTERTAINMENT.  They are able to see the sheer ridiculousness and buffoonery of it all because they are aware (at some level) that its days are numbered.

I, on the other hand, am not strong enough for such things.  I can only confront them with anger and pain, as I have spent much of my life living with the real harm caused by such ignorance and hatred.  (I must be clear that I in no way resent them for this… I am in fact jealous.)

Thanks for hanging out with me, Athena.  I hope we can straighten out this DADT mess before your generation has to play clean-up.  If not, I know you have our backs.

Pentagon

**This article first appeared in  Bent Alaska, the  “Alaska GLBT News and Events” blog**

Last month, I was asked by Servicemembers United if I would be interested in meeting with the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group to discuss GLTBQ partner issues in relation to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Despite the fact that I have devoted considerable time and energy to the repeal effort, I almost said no.

Any partner of a LGBTQ servicemember learns to deal with a heavy dose of invisibility and isolation. Because of DADT, we cannot participate in any manner of our servicemember’s regular military life. We can’t be known to any of our partner’s military friends or colleagues. We can’t be seen as a couple anywhere near base, or anywhere we might bump into fellow servicemembers.

When our soldier deploys, we can’t be there with the rest of the families to say our goodbyes. We then have to censor all of our communications while they are at war – trying so hard to coach them through that hell while having to sound like just a “friend”; even inventing crazy code words to say “I love you.”  And when they finally come home, we have to hide off in a corner somewhere so that no one will witness our tearful reunion.

While our servicemember is deployed, we are not on the military’s contact list should something bad happen. None of the base’s myriad support services apply to us. More often than not, we cannot even find support with other LGBTQ partners, because we have little means of meeting up with each other.  We live with the constant fear that one little slip-up can ruin the career of the person we love, and that their dreams of service will end in public humiliation and disgrace. It was that fear that almost prevented me from going to the Pentagon.

But, in the end, I was MORE afraid that this might be our one and only chance to offer our perspective to the CRWG – our only chance share the impact of DADT on LGBTQ families.  So, on September 16th, 12 of us nervously boarded a bus and headed to the Pentagon. (Meeting us there were three partners from SLDN, accompanied by two of their lawyers. A third organization had been invited to attend, but declined to send representation.)

Our group of partners had met beforehand to plot out a unified message (the other groups were invited, but did not attend.) We had decided that the most important thing to us all was simply to lift the constant burden of fear of discovery and discharge from the shoulders of our servicemembers. As the loving partners of some very dedicated soldiers, our utmost concern was for their immediate welfare – we were not doing this solely for a ‘benefits grab.’

And indeed, when it was our turn to speak, that is exactly how we started the meeting. But we then stressed that, if our partners were present, they would tell the Pentagon that they want their families to be taken care of. (Things seemed a bit tense at first, as I’m not sure they didn’t think we might start out by jumping up on the table while chanting slogans and clutching protest signs.)

One woman in our group represented 11 other GLBTQ partners who were to afraid to attend the meeting. She stated how those eleven families represented a combined 324 years of military service (and counting), had 12 children and 7 grandchildren – many of who had themselves enlisted in the military. She talked about how their kids had to lie in school, so that their parents wouldn’t be outed.

We wondered out loud how many straight servicemembers would reenlist if their families were denied all of the benefits they currently enjoy. We asked the Working Group to walk a mile in our shoes, and imagine what it would be like to say goodbye to their families every morning and then have to pretend that they didn’t exist for the rest of the day (even while listening to every last detail of the lives of your fellow servicemembers.) We told them that GLBTQ military families go through every one of the rigors associated with PCSs, deployments, etc., but without any of the support afforded to straight families; we’ve learned to do it all on our own.

All in all, the meeting lasted 110 minutes, and then continued for another 15 minutes in smaller groups as we prepared to leave. Our partners were thanked for their service, and we were officially thanked for our role in supporting them (the shock of hearing this spoken at the Pentagon still hasn’t worn off…) I feel we were able to have a substantive discussion of the issues affecting LGBTQ servicemembers and their families, and that we gave the Working Group a new perspective to consider. Rest assured that we DO have allies at the Pentagon, yet I am unsure how that will translate into immediate relief for us.