This is the first time I’ve ever been afraid to write because I am convinced that no words could ever capture how I feel right now. How can your life change so drastically in 24 hours? I can’t help but feel like a profoundly different person today – that how I define myself and how I fit into this world has been radically altered. Last night I partied with Clay’s military buddies. I’ve never laughed so hard. I’ve never felt so safe. My preconceptions about what was going to happen yesterday have never been so wrong.
As promised, Clay met with his Commander, Superintendent and First Sergeant on Friday:
Commander: Just the man we want to see. We were just discussing you.
Clay: (Oh shit – they already know).
Commander: We’ve decided to change things up at your promotion ceremony by bringing ‘tradition’ back into it. It will be more formal. You will introduce your friends and family members, say a few words… At the end we’ll lead you and your family out of the room while everyone stands at attention. You and your family will then be in a receiving line to greet everyone as they exit the room.
Clay: (oh shit) I need to talk to you about something first…
Commander: Yes, what is it you wanted to tell us? Have a seat…
Clay: (oh shit) I think I’ll stand.
(Clay backs up against the wall now, and the three come up and stand real close – not in a threatening manner, but truly curious as to what he has to say. We find out later they fear he called this meeting to tell them he’s leaving the unit).
Clay: My mother and my husband will be attending the ceremony.
(Silence and blank stares for about a minute)
First Sergeant: Well, that doesn’t change anything. Let’s move on to something important… So, we’ll be asking you to introduce your family…
Clay: How do you want me to do this?
First Sergeant: Just the way we discussed…
(The Commander remained thoughtful and silent for the rest of the meeting. Clay’s boss reiterated that it wasn’t an issue. The First Sergeant thanked Clay for trusting him enough to come out to him, and talked of the intense discussions he had witnessed at his DADT repeal training. He told how it seemed there was a 50/50 split between those who said it was going to be a huge problem, and those who argued that life would just go on the same as it always had.)
The morning of his promotion, Clay left the hotel early to meet with the guys he works with. As he’s waiting for them to file into the room, one jokes with his buddy, “Aw – it’s ok to be gay now! You can come out!”
(Clay always says that the military can be the gayest place on earth. There’s this aspect of camaraderie between straight men where they feel free to engage in this crazy horseplay that often includes pretending to be gay for a laugh. They’ll hug each other, grab each other’s butts, joke about just about EVERYTHING that is completely taboo in the military culture… Oh the irony – that it’s acceptable to engage in the very behavior that would get a queer man kicked out, but it doesn’t count if you don’t really ‘mean it’.)
Clay: On that note, I’ve got something important to tell you…
After another bit of silence, each guy in turn told Clay that it wasn’t an issue. As with each time he came out, there was a palpable tension as his friends and mentors did their best to process the information that Clay had just fed them. They were all pretty quick to come back with a supportive statement right away, but you could see the gears turning: “How did we miss this? What does this mean? How will things change?”…
To say that I cry easily would be an understatement . I’m a big, fat blubbering baby. And once I get started, the snot comes out and everything – not pretty. But I told myself that, no matter what, I would not make a spectacle at the promotion. Now, I must be very clear that I do not think that crying is shameful; I just felt the overwhelming need to show this group of people that I could handle it.
I did not get any sleep the night before – for a few days before, actually. It did not help when Clay told me how I would be publicly introduced and then on display in the receiving line. That little bullied boy that I used to be suddenly returned again. This time, however, he just stood next me. I could see every single one of his fears, but I just took his hand and promised that we’d get through this together.
The ceremony itself is a bit of a blur. I smiled but tried to concentrate and not make eye contact with anyone. Friends and family were called to sit in the front row, then everyone else filed in and took their seat. There were about 70 people in attendance; 10 of which now knew Clay was gay.
The base leadership got up and said the most amazing things about Clay. About how dedicated he was – about how respected he was. They were warm, relaxed and sincere… (I thought they would be tense and rush through it as though they were fearful of what craziness they were about to unleash.)
And then Clay was up there pointing to me and introducing me as his husband. I turned around and waved – smiling, but still made no eye contact. One person in the back of the room started clapping slowly, but the rest of the room was silent. That lone clapper stopped.
He talked about how a new day has dawned for the US Military and how he can finally be himself. He told everyone that we’ve been together 18 years, and a little of what it was like for me as a silent partner. (The tears started to come, I quickly wiped them away and forced composure). Clay’s voice started to waiver, but he pushed on. He ended by inviting everyone along on this new journey with him. The room erupted in thunderous applause.
We were led out through the crowd while everyone is stood at attention, and soon people were shaking my hand, one by one. Some didn’t make eye contact and a few people skipped the line all together; but the majority welcomed me warmly. Several lingered a minute or two, pumping my hand and thanking me over and over – saying such words I never thought I would hear…
So much more happened that day – but there is one scene that will stick in my mind until the day I die: We all went back to the shop after the promotion. It was a bit awkward because I was suddenly there and already knew intimate details about each and every one of his men, but none of them knew the first thing about me. I stood off to the side and tried not to get in the way. Everyone still seemed to be processing, and I worried that things would never be the same for Clay. I worried that the camaraderie would suffer, and that somehow adding me to the mix would upset a delicate balance. But soon they were called off to get ready for an awards ceremony. Clay said goodbye and started walking across the base. His guys caught up and they walked away together – two on each side with Clay in the middle; a solid line with shoulders almost touching. I watched their heads swivel in animated conversation and listened to their easy laughter as I let the tears come.
NOTE: To Mom, Blair, Arnie, Emily and Bill – I never would have gotten through the day if you hadn’t been there with me. Oh, how you made me laugh…