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Civil Rights
Military Leadership

by Adam Fenner

Editor's introduction:  GMS regularly runs articles by or about gay service members and veterans telling their stories of ‘serving while gay.’  This one is different.  Adam Fenner is a highly decorated National Guard Staff Sergeant with five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, first as a Marine infantryman, and most recently as a medic.  He’s straight, and supports our right to serve.  He’s served with LGBTQ troops, and has written a book, "On Two Fronts," with a gay friend, about one of his deployments.  GMS invited him to write an article, below, on his perspective.  His perspective is an eye-opener because he has served ‘in the real military world’  through the transition from DADT to open service; and his ‘on the ground in-country’ perspectives are not always exactly politically correct.  For example, he speaks of hetero 'jealousy' over the possibility that two gay troops need only close their quarter's door to get it on.  "That is Not why we joined," I told him. "We patriotically volunteered to serve and sacrifice like everyone else; to say that suggests otherwise."  He agreed.  He notes that while policy comes from the top down; it is NCO's leadership that "sets the tone."  I'd agree with that, but I'd add that we have never needed anyone's permission to be who we are and serve our country; it is the NCO's 'responsibility' to carry out the new policy on equality and ensure that it happens.  -SFC Denny Meyer, editor, Gay Military Signal.

It has been two years since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT).  I remember that day because it wasn’t particularly spectacular in any way, and even after we read the memorandum from the Department of Defense outlining the repeal of the seventeen-year old policy, nothing seemed to change.  Where were the hoots and the hollers?  My unit had a widely known circle of LGBT Soldiers within the ranks of our Battalion, but they didn’t flinch and neither did the command. Was this the result to a systemic problem of intolerance within our unit . . . or the opposite?

Even the politically correct justification for the implementation of DADT had one fatal flaw.  The mistaken belief that silence was the best way to protect our homosexual brothers- and sisters-in-arms.  The military has a way of reflecting the predominant beliefs of the nation as a whole, within its ranks.  The upper echelons implement policies based on a combination of their personal beliefs, slathered with political goals, and the ever present goal of mission accomplishment.  The lower ranks just try to make it through the day, understanding that they have to fight a two-sided war, one against the enemy threat, the other with their superiors who make decisions daily, affecting every facet of their lives.

The upper echelon has the challenge of remaining politically correct and socially relevant to continue their careers.  This is a challenge that the lower ranks, thankfully, don’t have to address.  Their thoughts are focused only on survival, and as a result they are more capable of more fluidly adapting to social changes, especially those related to civil rights.

I grew up in a small suburb in Wisconsin.  It was all white.  And if there was a homosexual population, we didn’t know about it.  “Gay” was just something we said when we wanted to dehumanize one another, but there was no understanding of what the word meant.  In Colorado, where I went to high school, there were two black students; the rest were white.  It wasn’t until my first day at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego with the Marine Corps that I first truly applied any education I had toward any type of tolerance.  It started there, with a Marine drill Instructor screaming at everyone, informing us that regardless of the color of our skin or the god they worship, we were all equally worthless.

Before I realized what was happening, I was eighteen-years old curled up in a fighting hole trying to keep warm with a Puerto Rican and a black Marine.  Suddenly, I was in a mixed-race environment, and among the minority.

The beauty of the infantry is its ability to truly teach tolerance.  At the lowest level, when it is simply a matter of survival to count on everyone around you, regardless of religion or skin color, the only logical option is to ignore the differences.  We shared our racial and cultural identities with one another and celebrated them with the most vulgar politically incorrect comments.

I carried this education with me to the Army and into Afghanistan, where I wrote my first book On Two Fronts.  My co-author and friend, Lance Taubold  was a gay Las Vegas entertainer. He wrote about his experiences as the friend left behind. I wrote mine as the soldier deployed.  Many of my brothers-in-arms knew that I was writing a book, but in the pre-DADT repeal days few knew that I was writing it with a gay civilian.  Now, five years after the start of the book, and six months after it was published, everyone knows, and it has been affectionately referred to by all my military brothers as my “Gay Romance.”  I can’t deny it is in many ways a relationship story, although not a romance.  It does show a straight service member’s friendship with an openly gay civilian during the trying times that a deployment offers.  Those openly diverse relationships are important for the larger acceptance of homosexuals within any community.

It is understood that the minority of any population wants the same rights as the majority, to have access to those rights that the majority take for granted.  That is common sense, and is one of the reason’s that the cries for equality of the minority often go unheard, because their requests are already known.  The way for any minority to be accepted is when leader’s within the majority openly accept the minority.  The tone the leadership sets will bleed down into the rest of the majority.  I do not mean political leaders, although, those are important as well, but their opinions are always under suspicion.  It is those celebrity, military and corporate leaders of society openly accepting the minority into their lives and embracing them as equals that makes the difference, for example: Frank Sinatra publicly embracing Sammy Davis Jr. as a friend and co-worker at a time when racial conflict was at its peak within the United States, the appointment of the first female Army officer, Lt. Col. Florence Blanchfield, by President Eisenhower in 1947, or that crusty drill instructor telling us we are all equally worthless.  Leaders set the tone.

Then DADT was repealed, and again I was in Afghanistan.  Although, I’m not naive enough to believe that persecution does not take place, from my position within the staff offices, but I didn’t see a change.  The command which had previously kept themselves purposely in the dark, by not pursuing their suspicions, while cultivating an environment of tolerance was now able to be openly tolerant. The policy was simple: keep your personal life personal.  As a result, no one was running to our First Sergeant because there was no reason.  We were all again equal.

If anything, any animosity that existed was as a result of jealousy.  Base policy prevented opposite gender service members from entering one another’s living areas. Straight couples had to get creative to satisfy their carnal urges, while the LGBT service members only needed to close their doors.  That, combined with the declaration that DOMA was unconstitutional, allowing homosexual couples to be married and receive full benefits, was the final word for equality--at least as far as we saw it, as well as highlighting the distinct difference between state and federal law, allowing same-sex married couples to receive federal benefits in states that don’t support same-sex marriage.

Within the ranks, from my perception, little changed.  The homosexual population was now allowed to be open about their sexuality, but it was hardly announced in company formations.  There will, of course, always be those outliers, the individuals who single-handedly destroy the climate of a unit through their intolerance.  It remains, as it did in the beginning, the responsibility of leadership to remind all service members of their equality.

Leaders will always have the expressed responsibility to set the climate of equal opportunity within their units, working diligently to promote equality through their own actions and the enforcement of equality.  It is the lower level of leadership that is most important, those  NCOs and Company grade who have always set the tone.  Those leaders who are always under the watchful eye of their subordinates, not the pictures hanging on our walls of leaders who we rarely encounter, and never interact with.  They have always been the most progressive, looking at the mission, the rules governing how they must accomplish it and the resources provided to them.  Our jobs are hard enough and the consequences too great to expend our energy upon hatred and intolerance.  It is akin to cutting off our own arm.

The battle we have today is similar to the one fought in the 60’s and 70’s against racism and also the decades following the women’s rights movement.  The policies are in place to support an equal opportunity environment at the highest level.  Now it falls upon the leaders at the middle and lower levels to support and enforce those policies by setting the example for acceptable behavior and punishing those who fail to meet that standard.  Through our hard work and diligence, we can work to develop an environment of tolerance within the military.

But there is still a lot of work ahead of us, and it isn’t the big decisions that will change a culture.  It is ever the little one, made at the lower level of leadership.

About the author: Adam Fenner has served in both the US Marine Corps and the Nevada National Guard.  He has deployed twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan. He now resides in Las Vegas and serves with the Nevada National Guard. Adam is the author of “Post Deployment Wisdom for the Returning Service Member,” “Post Deployment Wisdom for those Expecting a Returning Service Member”, and  “On Two Fronts;” all available on amazon.com.  He is a student pursuing his Bachelors degree in Accounting at UNLV, is currently working on a dark fantasy series, and a romance.
He has earned the following medals, ribbons and badges: Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal (Awarded 3 times), Army Achievement Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Meritorious Unit Citation (Awarded 2 times), Navy Unit Commendation, Army Good Conduct Medal, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghan Campaign Medal (with 4 Campaign Stars), Iraq Campaign Medal (with 1 Campaign Star), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal (Mobilization Device), NCO Professional Development Ribbon (Awarded 2 times), Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon (Awarded 3 times), Navy Sea Service Deployment Medal (Awarded 2 times), Nato Afghanistan Service Medal (ISAF Device), Nevada Governor’s Outstanding Unit Award, Nevada Guard Meritorious Service Ribbon, Nevada War on Terrorism Medal, Combat Medic Badge, Pathfinder Badge.

2014 GayMilitarySignal