I was an out gay Air Force officer before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
Remember DADT? The Clinton Administration implemented it in February of 1994 after failing to legalize military service for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.
DADT was supposed to make military service easier for LGB people by allowing closeted people to serve as long as they stayed in the closet. Instead, military life became more restrictive as commanders gained discretion to separate members without hard evidence.
Separation rates for LGB military members increased substantially from 1994, reaching a peak in 2001,then leveling off. DADT ended in September of 2011, when all restrictions on LGB service ended.
What many people don’t realize …
… is that before DADT, many queer people already served pretty openly. We knew we couldn’t be prosecuted or separated without actual evidence of sexual behavior — a pretty high bar.
I served in the Air Force until the beginning of 1990. Most people in my intel unit knew I was gay, and few people seemed to care. My experience wasn’t universal, but it wasn’t terribly unusual either.
What was it like to be gay in the Air Force in the 80s?
Pull up a chair and listen to a love story!
Mike hollered at me as I tidied the kitchen for my big date. “Come on, ya big wuss. I need you to spot me!”
“OK, OK, jeez,” I grumbled, wiping my hands on a grungy towel.
I dragged heels into the living room where we had our weight station set up. “Not going out with Kathy today?” I asked as I positioned myself behind the bench and poised my hands under the heavy barbells.
“Nah,” he grunted. “Charlie flight’s on second shift today.”
Mike groaned through 6 reps of heavy bench presses. “Now you,” he ordered.
We slipped off half the weights fast and traded places. Ten reps for me. This was all routine. We traded back and forth as we talked.
“You’re not gonna be home this afternoon, are you?” I asked him.
“I might have a friend coming over.”
Mike wiped a thin sheen of sweat off his face. “So?”
“What? For real? Dude!” He reached over for a high five. “Do I know him? Deutsch or Ami? Wait, not that drunk friend of Klaus’s from last Saturday?
“Naw, he’s a jerk. You know this guy Chad on Baker Flight?”
“Airman Sanders, the new tech reporter? Really? Isn’t he a little young for you? Come on, man! And, besides…”
I cut him off. “Don’t give me any shit. Like Kathy isn’t 7 years older than you? And Chad isn’t in my chain anymore. I’m on staff now, remember?
“OK, OK, but what do you see in him? Isn’t he a little too, too …”
“Gay? Gee, I sure hope so. Lunch could be a little tense if I’m wrong.”
Mike laughed and jumped off the bench. “I meant a little too pretty, but whatever.” He flexed his pecs and made a face. “I thought you liked real men?”
“Shut up.” I wiped the bench down, turning my back on him. “Just go somewhere today, huh? It’s Saturday. And Chad’s kinda scared of you.”
I felt his hand on my shoulder. “Just teasing, little bro. Robert already asked us to go rowing on the Wannsee with him and Claudia. Guess that’s a no for you, huh?”
I grinned over my shoulder at him. “Thanks!”
So, I cooked. Real meat-and-potatoes American food. The way to a man’s stomach and all. The doorbell rang as I was finishing up.
I panicked for half a second. Checked my hair. Pushed up my sleeves to show off recently pumped up muscles. Suffered a last second storm of doubt. Chad was going to think I was ridiculous!
“Hey, dude,” I smiled as I opened the door. I melted a little bit inside, like I always did when I saw him. I tasted acid in my mouth too. His shiny black hair blinded me. What was I thinking! Mike was right, Chad was WAY too gorgeous for the likes of me.
“Hey. Um, nice place,” he mumbled, peering around me.
“Sorry, yeah, uh, come on in.”
“Wow, check it out!” he breathed as he pushed past my uncooperatively planted feet. “Really cool. Whose guitar?”
“Oh, not mine. Mike’s. Lt. Harris’s. He mostly plays bass, though. That’s in his bedroom.”
Chad made his way to the center of the room and stared, tense. “Is he here?”
“Naw. Won’t be back til after midnight.”
His shoulders relaxed and his voice sounded way more casual as he said, “So, cool, uh, like it was really nice of you to ask me over. I get tired of the dorms.”
I started walking him around the apartment, showing it off. “I kinda miss you guys, you know. Since I got my staff job. Work isn’t as much fun anymore. I hear you’re a reporter now?”
“Just a tech reporter, but yeah…”
“You like Lt. Robinson OK?”
I sat down on our couch/futon and motioned for Chad to join me.
“Sure,” he said, arranging himself carefully to be close but not too close. “She’s OK. Not like you, though, sir. She’s not strict and all, but she isn’t much fun either.”
“Hey!” I protested, nervously punching his shoulder. “Watch it with the sir. We aren’t at work.”
His eyes widened as he blushed. “Really? I mean, what should I …”
“Bill calls me Jim when we go out drinking. I don’t see why you can’t too.”
“For real? That might be hard to get used to.”
I laughed as I jumped up and ran into the kitchen. “Come on! Hungry? Help me grab the food.”
We shoveled down pot roast and slurped wine, relaxing from the sheer normalcy of eating ordinary food. After, I suggested Nintendo.
Stupid idea, the console was Mike’s. I almost never played. Chad noticed.
“You’re terrible at this, LT, Uh, Jim. Worse than my little sister!”
“God, I know. Mike kicks my ass on it too. Oh… shit, what the hell? Fuck!” Out of lives again.
“Here, let me show you,” he laughed, bouncing over, close to me, fingers brushing mine as he slipped my controller into his hands. I was pretty sure we both felt the shock. I drew in a sharp breath.
A few minutes later he dropped the controller and glanced at me fast before dropping his eyes. “Can I ask you a serious question?”
I nodded, scared.
“Is it true about you and Lt. Harris?”
That was out of left field. I had no idea what he meant. “Is what true?”
“I mean, I don’t care or nuthin, I swear, but aren’t him and you, well… you know.”
He still wasn’t looking at me.
My stomach flipped over. “What? Seriously? No! People really say that?”
He finally looked up. “Maybe just a couple people, not really. But maybe I thought about it.”
I didn’t know how to keep going. I just wanted Chad to go home. This was too much. What had I been thinking? How did I get myself into this? Now I was the one looking down.
He touched my shoulder. “It’d be OK if you were. Really OK.”
I glanced up as he continued.
His hand slipped down off my shoulder to my upper arm. He squeezed it. His forearm was so close to my eyes that I could see each tiny hair. I stared, mesmerized.
“But I’m glad you’re not,” he breathed. “Not with him.”
He was so close I could smell nervousness blend with Polo cologne. My left hand reached out with an autonomy of its own, and I touched Chad’s cheek with one fingertip.
He leaned in.
I sighed and brushed his lips with the same finger.
He was in my arms, soft red lips pillowed into mine. It felt like we stayed that way forever.
This is one story about same-sex love and intimacy in the US military before DADT. There are many such stories, but this one is mine. Chad and I dated for about a year before our flame flickered out.
But what a fun year!
Chad even got used to Mike. The next summer, Chad and I joined my roommate and his girlfriend for two weeks of Greek island-hopping paradise. I doubt anyone in my Wing didn’t know Chad and I were a couple. I got razzed a little once in a while, but my career didn’t suffer.
I know how unremarkable that sounds today. Then? I guess Chad and I were blazing a trail — along with thousands of other service members who didn’t see any reason to hide.
Sadly, political reality took almost twenty more years to come to terms with military reality. And in the interim, a lot of good people suffered and lost careers and pensions.
But that’s another story for another day!
Want a quick peak into Chad’s and my Greek vacation?
A Gay Airman Sleeps with his Best Friend’s Girl
Love and romance before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.