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Gay in the Military:
Documentary Poetry


Gabriella Lyth Donofrio

I was on study abroad in France on September 20, 2011, the day the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was put into effect. I read an article about the repeal online without thinking too much about its significance. I had never heard of the policy before, never thought twice about the military except to listen to stories of my grandpa who served in WWII. But a few months later, as I was watching the fifth season of The L Word, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell suddenly came back into my awareness. I realized that it had barely been three months since gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and queers could serve openly in the military.

As an English major at Kalamazoo College I knew I wanted to produce a collection of poetry.  I was referred to Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary. Coal Mountain has been described as “genre defying” and experimental “documentary poetry.” It is this concept that I have subsequently borrowed to develop my project.

To create the pieces in this collection, I first interviewed several military members on their experiences of being gay in the military. I then transcribed the interviews and framed poems around the stories that seemed most poignant to me. The result is a collection of pieces in the voices of seven members of the LGBTQ+ military movement.

Below is a small sample of the near seventy-five pieces in my project.





Top Secret


I'll give you this story—it's really hilarious. So my partner and I—the first one, Courtland—we're living off base in California. I was flying at El Toro, the marine base in Southern California, and I had a super top-secret clearance. In my squadron there were only three of us that were designated to drop nuclear weapons. So they had to do an investigation about us, above the normal top-secret investigations. So here we are, we're living together, and people see us coming and going, and the FBI went in and investigated me. They spoke to all the neighbors and everything, and they never figured out that the two of us were gay and living together! Is that funny or what? So here I am with this super top-secret clearance to drop nuclear weapons, and I'm gay.





A Joke


When I signed up at the height of the Vietnam War they were raking in 4,000 people a day at every recruiting station. So for the induction process—which was a medical exam and this and that—there were 4,000 guys in their underwear because that's the way they do it, going from one doctor to the next and looking at your eyes, asking you to cough and all that nonsense. And so one half second is in front of a psychologist who did not look up from his rubber stamp and his paperwork and said, "Any problem with homosexuality?" And I honestly said, "No," because I didn't have any problem being gay. And he said, "Next," and that was the end of that.






After that time where I was investigated, I had this terror, this dread—constantly looking over my shoulder—that I'm going to use the wrong pronoun, I'm going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person and my career is going to be over. That time when I was under investigation, I had to go into work every day. I was stared at, whispered about. I had nothing to do. I was basically just sitting at a desk doing nothing all day, every day for about three months while I was being investigated. And it was the worst feeling in the world. I'm lucky I didn't get kicked out. I'm lucky I wasn't—you know, there are a lot of people who get assaulted, who had really bad experiences back then. Mine wasn't anywhere near as bad as others, but it was pretty awful. So when my obligation was up I regretfully left the army. I just couldn't go through it again, I couldn't risk it. I was in the first class of women to graduate West Point, and my dream was to go back and teach there but I just couldn't. I couldn't live that way, live with that fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It was really scary.







Fast forward to March of 2003, when we started the war in Iraq. He had to go on deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and as a pilot in his position, working with special warfare, we both knew that there was a strong possibility that he could be shot down or killed in combat. We would try to talk when we could by phone or by e-mail, but we had known of one of our friends who had been discharged from the military while he was stationed in Germany for talking about his relationship with his partner via e-mail. So we kept our e-mails, you know, without any kind of affection or anything, just sort of like how's your day going kind of things—best friends kinda conversations. And then it became a problem when we were talking on the phone, too, because their phone calls were possibly monitored. We could tell in the other person's voice—the frustration that you can sense in human inflection. We couldn't say things like “I love you,” or we just didn't because we were scared of it.







I deployed in 2004 to Iraq, and my partner dropped me off on base, and so she came on base with me and we were standing there with all the other military families and, you know, everybody was hugging and kissing goodbye and crying and having this very, you know, emotional goodbye and we kind of gave each other a high five and, you know, said good luck and that was pretty much it, you know, and, I look back at that now and say, wow, if something were to have happened, that would have been my last interaction with the person that I love, was a high five.





Professional Military Ethics Education




I was sitting in a class called Professional Military Ethics Education. A cadet who I very much respected said that he didn’t believe that gays should be serving in the military and that he was glad that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy existed because he was glad he was not forced to serve alongside people who he morally and religiously disagrees with. And then someone else, who happened to be a closer friend that I still respected very much, stood up and said something along similar lines but then said something about gays really bothered him, and that he thought that they would undermine the military, and that he also supported the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. And then finally someone that I considered even closer stood up and said that he just thought homosexuality was a sin and the thought of sex between men disgusted him and that he believed with every fiber of his being that gays were going to hell and that they had absolutely no place in the military.




I went to West Point so that I could become a leader of character, so I could live with honor and integrity and also to develop myself holistically, both professionally and personally, and commit myself to a cause that I really believed in. And I realized that the military’s policy was forcing me at that moment to be a coward. I wanted to stand up and say something. I had a very physical reaction—I was sweating and there was a lump in my throat and I just wanted to stand up and say that I was gay and, you’re saying these things about me, to my friend. But I knew I couldn’t. It’s not because I didn’t want to or that I didn’t have the courage to, but rather because the law mandated that I stay silent.




The poems that appear here are taken from interviews with Tom Carpenter, Denny Meyer, Sue Fulton, Jacob Richardson, Kristen Kavanaugh, and Katie Miller.

Gabriella Lyth Donofrio can be reached at asktellproject@gmail.com

  2013 Gabriella Lyth Donofrio, Gay Military Signal