WASHINGTON — For months, Justin has spent nearly every waking moment with the other men in his special operations unit, building a close bond with each one.
They’re poised to head to Afghanistan soon, where they expect heavy fighting and rough conditions. To survive, trainers say, they’ll have to fully trust the men fighting beside them. Justin said he considers the unit to be as close as his family, and they’d all sacrifice their lives to keep the others safe.
What Justin’s brothers-in-arms don’t know is that he’s gay. And while he’s willing to die for them, the specialist isn’t sure he’s ready to reveal his secret to the team, and risk the job and respect he has earned.
“I feel like I still have to prove myself,” the infantryman said. “I think they’ll accept me. The training has been so difficult that it builds its own cohesion. I know they trust me. I do want to tell them before I retire, but I’m just not sure when.”
When the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is repealed next month, gay troops will be able to serve openly without fear of dismissal for the first time in U.S. military history.
But whether most will come out or keep their personal lives secret remains unclear. Gay troops’ careers will no longer be threatened by law, but many worry that the macho culture of the military might not be fully ready for those revelations.
Soldiers interviewed for this story asked not to use their real names as long as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is still in effect.
Allison, a lesbian Army colonel serving in Afghanistan, said even after it’s repealed, she doesn’t plan on coming out to most of her colleagues. Part of the decision is simply because she’s already kept her personal and professional lives separate for more than 20 years. She said she sensed that some colleagues suspected she was gay. But still she worries about her peers’ reaction if, after years serving alongside her, their suspicions were confirmed.
For almost a decade she has lived with her partner (who is not in the military), referencing her on occasion with colleagues but never outright confirming their relationship.
“The lieutenants and captains you may talk to grew up in a semi-accepting world,” she said. “But I am a pre-DADT soldier. My peers are less likely to know a gay person, and are less likely than the young soldiers to have been exposed to a positive image of a gay person.”
But she is taking comfort that the decision on whether to come out will be hers to make.
“Even as a colonel, everyone holds power over me right now,” she said. “My niece started dating an airman, and we had to have a family meeting to talk about how to refer to my partner around him. One slip could end my career.”
If she’s outed after repeal, she might lose some friends but not her commission.
“Finally my partner and I will be able to go out and have drinks together without worrying.”
Under rules outlined by the Defense Department earlier this year, troops will not have to publicly disclose their sexual orientation to recruiters or commanders, and no data will be kept on how many troops identify themselves as gay or straight.
In a post-repeal manual for gay servicemembers, officials from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network warn that even without “don’t ask, don’t tell” looming, the decision of whether to come out is a difficult one.
“Some are concerned about how family and friends will react when they find out,” the guide states. “Some fear rejection from their church. Some worry about harassment. It is a highly personal and sensitive choice, and service members should go at their own pace in deciding whether and when to come out, and who to tell.”
Justin said he feels incredible guilt for the lies he’s told to stay in the Army, which includes what he calls “the pronoun game,” switching “he” with “she” in tales of past exploits.
He justifies it by telling himself that acknowledging his homosexuality to even close Army friends could jeopardize his career, but soon that excuse will disappear.
“This is the kind of alpha male unit that [critics] say won’t accept gays,” he said. “I think they’ll accept me, but you’re never sure.
“I don’t worry about physical danger. I received more push back and homophobia from my old unit than this one. But I just want to be judged on my ability, not anything else.”
The irony for Justin is that while he struggles over whether to share his secret, he sees an Army more ready to accept gay troops than he ever expected. In his three years of service, he has already heard colleagues’ ideas about openly gay troops shift from a nightmare to a boring reality.
Before the repeal was announced, he said, “you’d hear a lot of slurs and homophobic remarks. Once we knew repeal was coming, there was a complete 180. Nobody says that anymore.
“You still have guys teasing other guys for acting ‘gay’ once in a while, but the straight married guys are the ones getting picked on the most. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find out I’m gay, but I never get picked on.”
He’s optimistic despite past experiences when servicemembers have learned of his sexuality, which led to grief and headaches.
Two years ago, when he confided in a fellow gay soldier, she outed him to several others, including his roommate, who warned others not to stand beside him in formation because “you’ll catch HIV.” That soldier was reprimanded, but it also left Justin apprehensive every time he heard anyone make an off-color comment about gay troops.
He’s avoided relationships since then, although he blames it on the workload involved with special operations training.
He said maybe once the repeal is final, he’ll be more comfortable about the idea of discussing his private life honestly. Or, maybe once he earns his combat patch — this will be his first combat tour — he’ll feel like he’s proved himself enough that it won’t matter.
“I do want to clear it up before I leave the military,” he said. “I feel guilty about it. But I’m still intimidated at the thought of talking to them about it.”