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Were you TRYING to Get Kicked
Out of the Military, Rhonda?

Rhonda K. Davis
Navy Veteran

I may have lost my Navy career that day on the Brooklyn Bridge, but I gained my self-respect.

Most of us have been guilty of speeding on the highway at one time or another in our lives. Most of us are aware that speeding is against the law, and there are consequences to pay if you get caught. Most of us probably donít fully weigh out those consequences when we place our foot so heavily on the accelerator; we just think "I want to get there, and I want to get there NOW." And when youíre caught by law enforcement and you have to pay the speeding ticket, youíre saddened by the loss of hundreds of your hard-earned dollars, but you knew the consequences when you started your journey. Now if someone were to ask you, "were you trying to get a speeding ticket, did you want a speeding ticket?" The answer is probably, no, you didnít want a speeding ticket; you were just trying to get someplace and get there quickly, and the ticket was part of the unfortunate consequence.

Now keep all this in mind when I tell you what happened to me on June 3, 2006. I got up to face a rainy, dreary day and some of the biggest decisions in my life so far: how heavily was I willing to press that accelerator in order to get where I wanted to go, how much was I willing to risk in order to get there? These questions came at me subconsciously as I dressed in jeans, then changed into Navy summer whites and headed into New York City to participate in the March for Marriage Equality. White was clearly not the best choice for such a wet, dirty day, but I chose the uniform because it symbolized the very things we marched for that day: freedom, equality, tolerance, and dignity.

Iíll be honest with you; I was initially reluctant to put it on. I knew that showing up at this event in uniform would mean my life would probably change forever, but by not putting it on, that would mean I was afraid. Afraid of what? Well Ö afraid of the Navy accusing me of being a lesbian and being kicked out of the military, afraid of taking a firm stand on something I believe in, afraid of not being able to get the mud out of that uniform! But honor, courage, and commitment are as much a part of me now as the gay pride tattoo I have on my left ankle Ö so, to me at least, not putting on the uniform would mean I was a coward and not worthy to wear it. And that was worse than the possibility of unemployment.

The choices we make are not always good for us in the short term. The choices I made that day cost me 10 years toward retirement in the Navy, a steady paycheck, a great job as a journalist and broadcaster, and some really sweet benefits Ö but I have no regrets. I talked to the news crews about marriage equality and about the DADT policy. In the time it took to open my mouth and start talking, I found myself trading in 10 years of a lie for that one glorious moment of truth. And it felt damned good! The moment I said I have a girlfriend and we want to get married, that was the moment I knew my Navy career was over; I had officially violated the "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" policy Ö in front of millions of people watching TV and listening to the radio.

The rest of the march was uneventful for me. Hundreds of us held brightly-colored umbrellas and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Battery Park. We chanted "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!" as muddy streets left their mark upon my white pant legs. The train ride home was long and cold that day. Monday morning at work seemed even longer and colder as I had to face an endless hallway of closed doors Ė knowing the officers and senior enlisted people behind them were all talking about me.

After hours of not knowing exactly what was going on, my Commanding Officer pulled me aside and questioned me about the event. "I am told," he said, "that you talked about having a Japanese girlfriend on the radio Saturday, and that you want to marry her. That violates the Donít Ask, Donít Tell Policy." I was seeing blue lights in the rear view mirror and knew I had been caught for speeding. I knew I could either get a ticket or a warning.

There had been so many times during the past 10 years that I wanted to scream out, "Iím a lesbian!" to the people in our office talking about "fags and dykes." There had been so many times I wanted to hang out with the crowd, but I refrained because I couldnít let them know too much about me. DADT was almost a daily burden Ė a constant tug of war between do the right thing and get kicked out, or continue lying and stay in. Some days, I felt like a sell-out to myself when I put on my uniform. Living a double life was difficult, especially when youíre stationed overseas and the military community is small like a close-knit family.

When my girlfriend had to leave this country and return to Asia to apply for a work visa, DADT really hit home, and I felt it was just a matter of time before the internal tug of war rope would snap. As a leader in my work place, I was told by my superiors to "take care of your troops," to "make their problems your own," to "ensure theyíre spending enough time with their families." But what about my problems? There was no one to talk to when my girlfriend had to leave, and even though sheís family to me, there was no one who could help me through this family problem. Confiding in someone would surely mean being discharged from the military. Not confiding in anyone meant I bottled it all up and was constantly distracted at work. It meant growing more and more certain that abiding by DADT was more than I was willing to do for my country and much more than I should have to do for my country.

"If you want to tell me that the person on the radio was not you, Iíll drop this case right here, Petty Officer Davis," my Commanding Officer persisted.

I didnít say anything.

"If that person wasnít you, I wonít pursue this any farther."

I didnít know what to say. I had two choices: to tell him the truth and package my discharge up with a nice red ribbon on it right now, or to lie and have to live with that the rest of my life. That would undo my one moment of honesty two days earlier.

"Is that what you want to tell me? That the person who talked about her girlfriend wasnít you?"

I think he wanted to believe that, or at least have me say it wasnít me and be let off the hook at having to punish me. I knew he didnít want to let me go, but policy is policy Ö and I broke this one. I didnít really want to be discharged Ė like no one wants to pay a speeding ticket -- but I couldnít sit here and lie to the man.

"It was me that made that comment to the reporters," I admitted, "but youíve misquoted me."

He looked curious, maybe a bit hopeful that it had been the word "boyfriend" I used rather than "girlfriend," and by correcting him, all of this could end right here.

I corrected the misquote by saying, "My girlfriend isnít Japanese, sir Ö sheís Korean!"

The Commander paused, then we both laughed, and within a few hours, I was signing the first of many papers that eventually led to my honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy.

Now I have personally renamed the "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" policy, the "Donít Learn, Donít Educate" policy because thatís what it really is. In a military rich in diversity, this policy forbids gays and lesbians from sharing our culture, our experiences, and our struggles. I hate admitting this now, but Iím a Southern redneck who grew up with some awful stereotypes and misconceptions in my head concerning African Americans and other minorities. These didnít change because the Education Fairy showed up in my room one night and got rid of all the crap in my head. No, the way I view people changed when I was in college where I met many different kinds of people from many different religious, cultural, and ethnic groups, and those people shared their experiences and struggles with me. Just as I am a reasonable person, capable of changing my mind, so are the people I work with.

In the weeks following the marriage march Ė before my discharge papers were officially given to me Ė I had the unique opportunity to share my lifeís experiences with my co-workers who demonstrated that they are just as reasonable as I anticipated they were. For me anyway, the unit cohesion was stronger than it had ever been before because now I was free to talk to these people openly and honestly. They appreciated that honesty and we all grew closer than we had been before. In fact, my Executive Officer said to me on the day I left, "Davis, I always liked you as a person and as a worker, but now I truly respect you."

On July 28th, I handed over my Navy ID card, hung my uniform in the closet for the last time, and ended a 10-year chapter in my life. I also started a new one. Of course, I didnít walk out of my house on June 3rd with the objective of getting kicked out of the military that day. Like the person speeding on the highway, I knew I was breaking the rules. But I had a place I wanted to go, and I wanted to get there quickly Ö even if it meant having to pay a ticket.

I wanted to get here, this place where I am now. I wanted the freedom to marry my girlfriend that I love more than anything on Earth. I wanted to find a job where I could proudly put her photo on my desk and say, "this is my girlfriend" to anyone who asks. I wanted to have dinner with her anywhere we want, without looking over my shoulder every time she touches my hand. I wanted to stop having to filter everything I say, and take a year or more evaluating people before I could trust someone, and have to fight off a barrage of questions about why Iím 36 and not married! I wanted to just be me: a hard-working, honest person Ė a person who canít reconcile my idea of honesty and integrity with the militaryís idea of unit cohesion.

I may have lost my Navy career that day on the Brooklyn Bridge, but I gained my self-respect. And to me, thatís worth any price you have to pay for it. Today I devote most of my energy-- my honor, courage, and commitment -- towards ending DADT so that other gay and lesbian troops wonít have to muddy their own uniforms in the struggle for equality.