Editor’s note: David and Sebastian’s names have been changed to protect their identities.
It was when he was stationed in California for the Marine Corps. David was cleaning his room in the barracks with a song by La Oreja de Van Gogh, a Spanish pop band, playing in the background. He was singing casually along to the lyrics when his roommate walked in.
Hearing David sing the female pop vocals, David’s roommate asked if he was gay.
David replied, “no.”
David let the song continue playing in the background as a sign of his indifference to the question. Yet in that moment, David decided that never again would he play La Oreja de Van Gogh out loud. Because in that moment, he had just lied about his sexual orientation.
He wouldn’t lie again, because he made sure nobody would ever ask.
He felt the shame then, and there are times he still feels it now.
David is now a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating in May with a degree in history. He is one of the 416 UNC-Chapel Hill veterans receiving veteran G.I. Bill benefits, which cover college tuition, books and awards a monthly stipend.
David noticed the homophobia in the Marines the day he joined in 2007, when openly gays, lesbians and bisexuals were still prohibited from enlisting in the U.S. military under the policy colloquially known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He worked in an all-male infantry battalion training to be a vehicle dispatcher. Everyone he worked with seemed thoroughly masculine, from their deep voices to their gestures. Most of his comrades had girlfriends, and David changed his then-partner’s name in his prepaid flip phone to a woman’s.
“No one really knew,” David said. “No one really asked.”
Because David played his part.
“I did not pretend to be homophobic,” he said. “I was homophobic. I feared being seen in public around anyone that was gay. I disliked gay people for setting a stereotype that we were all ‘effeminate.’”
Then in 2010, David and his unit were deployed. Six months in the Sangin Valley of Afghanistan was enough for David to worry less about his sexuality. The possibility of not completing a mission became a bigger concern.
In Afghanistan, David’s days began as early as 5 a.m. and ended as late as 1 a.m. David delivered ammunition, food, water, communication equipment and other supplies to other groups of Marines nearby.
Transporting the supplies could always go wrong. The team could have been ambushed by the enemy or attacked with rocket propelled grenades. One wrong step in the sand could set off an improvised explosive device (IED). And twice, David’s convoy did drive over an IED. Muscle memory, so deeply imprinted from hours of training, took over.
But after a while, transport after transport, David didn’t, couldn’t worry about being killed.
“There’s a point where you don’t even care what happens to you,” he said. “You become emotionally numb.”
And then David stopped worrying about being gay.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a compromise with Congress to allow gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals to serve in the military without revealing their sexuality. The policy prohibited military personnel from discriminating or harassing closeted members already serving.
“I already knew what I was getting myself into,” David said firmly, making direct eye contact. “I just didn’t know to what extent.”
The law defined homosexuality as “an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Military members could have been discharged from service and lost all military benefits if they revealed their sexuality.
Since the official repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which took effect in 2011, the military has been making efforts to transition to a more-inclusive organization. This past summer, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a directive as part of their Equal Opportunity Program for each of the armed forces to include sexual orientation as a form of unlawful discrimination, held in equal regard to race, color, national origin, religion and sex. Through the Department of Defense directive, all the branches of the military are required to update their respective equal opportunity programs.
To Master Gunnery Sergeant Lester Poole, a senior equal opportunity advisor for the Marine Corps, change hasn’t come soon enough.
“One of our leadership traits is that you should be loyal and that you should have integrity,” Poole said. “(Gay service members) that repressed their own feelings, it caused them to violate their own integrity.”
The Department of Defense should have issued a directive prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation back in 2011, Poole said, not only now in 2015. Doing so might’ve captured data revealing the prevalence of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Niko House, 26, a UNC senior and Army veteran, said he saw discrimination against gay service members when he worked as a paralegal in Fort Bragg from 2008 to 2012. He read briefings, drafted charges, read statements and analyzed all the actions of the brigade.
His service coincided with the repeal of the policy. House said when his brigade received a briefing about the repeal of the policy, there were hateful and homophobic comments.
“It was a disgrace,” House said.
House, who is straight, never drafted charges against a service member for being gay, but he said even if he had received the paperwork, he would have thrown it out.
He suspects at least four or five members in his brigade were gay, based on their reactions to negative comments about homosexuality. Even talking about homosexuality at the base was ridiculed.
But for David, hiding his sexuality as a Marine was never a sacrifice of his integrity
“It was for my job,” David said. “I saw it essential for accomplishing the mission. I don’t see what I did as unethical. I did it for my own safety. I don’t believe that I would have received the same respect had people known that I was gay.”
David now lives in an apartment with his partner of three years, Sebastian, in Raleigh. The couple plans to open a business in Raleigh after David’s graduation. Although they are in a serious relationship, they don’t plan on getting married. David doesn’t talk about his experience as a gay Marine with anyone, except his partner.
Sebastian said David doesn’t talk about his past with others because he does not want anyone to pity him. Sebastian believes some gays choose not to express their sexuality because of religious restrictions, ideas about masculinity manhood mentalities or fear of losing social status, particularly if they have higher levels of education.
“(David) also took a part in that game,” Sebastian said.
David, who identifies as Chicano, grew up in a culture dominated by sexism and machismo. He knew he was gay as early as elementary school, but in his household, stereotypes associated with gay men were not welcomed. So David kept his mouth shut. He didn’t come out to his mom until he was 15.
Perhaps ironically, military life in some ways came as a relief, despite the Marines’ own value placed on machismo. As a Marine, David didn’t fear being stereotyped about his sexuality — as long as it remained a secret, of course.
Army veteran House said he thinks there’s a hatred toward gays, as well as racism, that exists in the military due to roots in conservative values.
“There are a lot of brothers and sisters in arms that would die for each other, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t racial undertones in those relationships,” House said.
David left the Marines in 2011 at the early stages of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal implementation. He said he left not because he was gay or because he experienced racism, but because he had enough of having people tell him what to do. He didn’t want to feel like a perro — a dog — anymore.
Yet he had enjoyed the experience in the field, the camaraderie, the pride and privileges of being a Marine. After the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” David wanted to return to the military as an officer but was unable due to a disability.
“You will always miss the Marine life,” he said. “It’s like you know you’re in a bad relationship, but you still go back to it.”
A bad relationship, perhaps, because David does not think homophobia in the Marines will disappear in his lifetime. However, Poole said since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” there have been no official reports of sexual orientation discrimination nationwide.
“I don’t think the (culture) has changed for the negative,” Poole said. “Based off of the culture, based off of the younger Marines, (the repeal) has been embraced. I think we have adapted to the time.”
But for military members to gain social awareness, House suggested a requirement at least two years of college during or before service — for exposure to the diversity of college campuses.
“The hatred that is festered in the military is because we have not handled the people (we go to war with) correctly or educated the (military) correctly on anything that has to do with social issues,” House said.
“The military accepts members from society across all different walks of life,” he said.
For some, military service might be someone’s first encounter with racial diversity or responding to an authority figure of the opposite gender. But through socialization, service members learn about diversity, Poole said.
“Those that embrace (diversity) tend to do very well. Those that seem that they haven’t adjusted, they have a short career — that’s for sure.”
For some service members, military careers do originate in college. Students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Core (ROTC) are taught from the get-go about equal opportunity issues — so they can make an easier to transition to serving as active duty members.
Lt. Joshua Roaf, navigation instructor for Navy ROTC at UNC, said students are specifically taught bystander intervention, and equal opportunity instruction as a whole includes material directly from the U.S. Navy.
“We’re trying to breed good leaders,” Roaf said. “And good leaders notice these situations. (When) they feel that something is wrong, they should act on that—whether it’s equal opportunity, sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying, cheating.”
Jill Levinson, a sophomore Navy ROTC student at UNC, said she hasn’t ever felt excluded or discriminated for not being straight. She identifies as queer, which to Levinson, means she is attracted to different genders and that attraction can vary or change.
She came out publicly to her battalion during a diversity lab her freshman year. UNC’s director of diversity led an activity where the squad started off standing in the center of a circle. The director asked the midshipmen to stand as far away from the center of the circle depending on how different they felt relative to one another. Levinson took the opportunity to share why she stood apart from the center of the circle.
“Well, I feel different because I’m Jewish, and I’m not straight,” Levinson said. Standing away from her squad-mates, her heart raced from nerves.
She was scared about revealing her sexual identification so early in the program, but at the end of the lab, her squad leader came up to her and congratulated her for being brave, welcoming her again to the battalion.
So far, she hasn’t met any other LGBTQ students in ROTC, but she doesn’t feel marginalized in the program. Her sexual identification doesn’t come up as an issue and even if it did, she doesn’t mind being an advocate so other people don’t have to.
“I thought I would get a lot more questions,” she said about her coming out.
David, a member of the Carolina Veterans Organization, is not open about his sexuality with other veterans at UNC. He does not think that there are not any other gay veterans on campus — that’s why he keeps his sexuality private from his military life, he said.
“I think (other UNC veterans) would react differently or treat me differently,” David said. “They wouldn’t see me the same way. They wouldn’t. I know that’s the case.”
House, who has never met David, said the veterans he has interacted with at UNC seem comfortable speaking about homosexuality. David, however, consciously separates his military identity and his sexual orientation. He isn’t open about his sexuality with the LGBTQ community on campus either. He has never felt connected to the LGBTQ community; he believes he wouldn’t fit in because of his military background.
“I’ve never had a gay friend before in my life,” he said.
David still connects most with military buddies at UNC. To them, he’s the one who makes all of the smart comments.
“They get my jokes,” he said. “They get my experience.”
But David remains private about his sexuality with other veterans — even though they are his best friends.
“It still lingers.”