My Right, My Duty, My Honor
In 1968 I
left college and volunteered to serve in the
US Navy despite being doubly exempt as a
college student and being gay.
Everyone thought I was nuts to do it.
My gay friends told me, "Are you crazy!
You can't do that; you're a little faggot!"
My parents told me, "Ziete Mishugah!
(Are you crazy!) you're supposed to be a
doctor or a lawyer, not a gunslinger!"
At the time, thousands of young Americans
were fleeing to Canada, rather than being
drafted and sent to Vietnam. Some were
conscientious objectors, some were cowards,
some were somewhere in between.
Thousands of other young Americans lied and
said they were gay in order to avoid being
drafted and being sent to Vietnam. I
lied and said I was straight so that I could
serve. At that time gay people were
simply unwanted in our armed forces.
We were forbidden to serve, period. If
you were found out to be gay, you could be
murdered by your fellow service members, or
you'd be interrogated and terrorized for
months and then be dishonorably discharged
So, why did I
do it? The story goes back to before I
was born. My parents were WWII Holocaust
Refugees to America. My mother arrived at
Ellis Island at the height of WWII as an illegal
immigrant refugee. She had no visa, no
papers, nothing; she was fleeing genocide in
Nazi Germany. She was allowed to stay,
given a green card as a resident alien and five
cents to pay for ferry fare across New York's
harbor from Ellis Island, past the Statue of
Liberty, to start her new life in America, in
New York City. That nickel was the only
welfare she ever received for the next sixty
years of her life in this country.
My mother, eternally grateful to have been
allowed to stay in this country, raised me to
believe that "There is nothing more precious
than American Freedom."
message sank in and became the guiding principal
of my life. Now, back to 1968, when I saw
all my fellow college students, who took their freedom
for granted, protesting the war in Vietnam by
burning the American flag. As a first
generation American, who did not take his
freedom for granted, seeing my flag being burned
enraged me. And I thought, "Its time to
pay my country back for my family's freedom."
That's how it happened. That's why I did
it. People telling me that I couldn't,
that I shouldn't, that I was crazy, only made me
more determined. I sort of knew that I wasn't
welcome in our armed forces, but being young and
terminally idealistic, I wasn't going to let
that stop me. It didn't stop me, but it
thunder of warning came at the induction center
on the first day. I was one of four
thousand young men, at 6 AM. going through the induction
day indoctrination, medical exam, and swearing
in. At one point a Petty Officer stood on
a table and shouted, "All right mother
line up! Nuts to Butts! I want you so
close to the man in front of you that he starts
to smile, if he laughs back off a little!"
This was 'a brief introduction to homophobic
military humor.' Everyone chuckled. To me
it was a thunderclap of warning! I was
scared that if I laughed too hard, everyone
would know and I'd be out before I was in.
It was just mildly amusing to all the young men
that were there; to me it was a terrifying
warning of what to expect.
And then there
was 'The Question' by the shrink in the middle
of the medical exam. "Any problem with
homosexuality?" That was IT, the dreaded
moment. So I answered, "um, noooo."
And then the doctor mumbled, "NEXT!" and it was
over, simple as that. After that, we were
directed to face forward towards the flag, raise
our right hands, and be Sworn In. Boom!
Too late now, I was in.
warnings came on the first day in boot camp.
A big bruising crew cut high ranking NCO with a
chest full of medals addressed us in a deadly
serious tone of voice, with a tinge of curled
lip disgust, about how very inappropriate it was
if any one of us had somehow squeaked through
the screening and were sitting there amongst us
as a homosexual! OMG he was talking about
ME! He warned how very seriously bad it would be for
me if I didn't go quietly to my Drill
Instructor, by the end of the day, and admit the
truth, at which point I would be quickly and
quietly whisked away and sent home. I
could feel my heart in my throat! But I
just kept my mouth shut, kept a poker face, and
pretended that like everyone else, it didn't
concern me. I made it through the horror
of boot camp and I served honorably for ten
In boot camp,
at that time, the training technique involved
insulting recruits and putting their dignity
through a meat grinder. Every day every
one of us was called "a faggot." What got
me through was thinking, "well, if all these
southern straight boys can take that, I guess I
can too." So, I just let it slide off my
back like water off a duck. There may have
been one or two other gay men in our barracks of
100; but like me, they maintained deep silent
secrecy. I had to be a regular recruit,
marching on my boots in sync and lustily singing
the crude cadence call songs even if the words
were about killing me.
assigned to an aircraft carrier. I'd never
seen an aircraft carrier before. It was
humongous, towering 27 levels up and five
football fields long! I never got over the
thrill of living and working on that monster of
the sea. The
bad news was that for the first six months
living and working
aboard the ship, I was exposed to toxic dust daily as the
massive repairs continued.
Nearly 30 years later I developed near fatal
After that, I
served in a Helicopter
Squadron Headquarters where 'readiness training'
required jumping out of helicopter gun ships
from about 20 feet up, no rope, nothing, jump
and land on your boots. I loved it; but
nearly forty years later I have excruciatingly
painful spinal degeneration and walk slowly with
a cane. Jumping out of a helicopter gun
ship, without screaming, was the bravest thing I
I was a double invisible minority. No one
could look at me and tell that I was gay; it
wasn't like being black. All I had to do
was be cool, and never ever make a mistake when
talking about 'girlfriends' who were boyfriends.
Every single day that I served, for ten years, I
had to listen to casual violent remarks and
crude homophobic jokes about 'faggots being
killed.' Whoever was speaking had no idea
that the guy he was talking about was standing
right next to him. I couldn't just stand
there silently, I had to laugh crudely along
with everyone else, least someone noticed my
displeasure and asked what the hell my problem
was. Every single day! It hurt, and
it was scary. I got used to it, I knew
what to do. But if you think that didn't
cause hypervigilant PTSD, well it did. If
anyone found out or even suspected, you'd be
killed. In the Army in Vietnam, you'd be
shot in the back and never even know what hit
you. An enemy sniper would be blamed and
that was that. In the Navy, they'd grab
you in the middle of the night and throw you
overboard, and you'd drown alone in the dark in
the middle of the night in the middle of the
ocean. No one would notice that you were
missing until morning muster, many hours later
and hundreds of miles away. When that
happened, they'd turn the ship around and start
searching. There was no expectation or
possibility of finding you, it was just a
ritual. A week or so later a military
sedan would pull up to your parent's house and a
uniformed sergeant and a lieutenant would knock
on your parent's door. Before they said a
word your mother would burst into tears and
collapse; everyone knew what a visit like that
was all about. If you'd been in the Army,
a month or so later your body would arrive in a
box and there could be a proper funeral during
which a lieutenant holding a folded flag would
kneel in front of your seated weeping mother and
say, "Please accept this flag as a symbol of a
grateful nation....." But, if you'd been
tossed overboard in the Navy, there was no body
and no funeral. A very nice official
bureaucratic letter would arrive in the mail
along with a folded frameable flag and that was
that. They would never be told how or why
you were killed. The military didn't do
that. I knew a guy in the Navy, a Yeoman,
whose job it was to make up and compose letters
to families about their loved ones having been
'Killed in Action.' Just as well, I
suppose, considering that most families didn't
know their son's secret. Imagine their
being told, "your son was murdered because he
was a homosexual...." WHAT!
minority status was that I'm Jewish. So, often enough, there were
good-natured good-old-boy discriminatory remarks
about 'the Jew boy!' It was one more thing to have to deal
with. I was once 'loaned' to an Admiral
for three days to type up his war-games reports.
When we were done, he came into my little
office, and drawled in a deep southern accent,
"Meyer, you're pretty good..... for a Jew!"
I knew he meant well and was trying to
complement me, but his disgusting prejudice was
just as blatant as if he'd used the N word to a
Black Petty Officer. I had to just stand
there in silence, you don't talk back to an
Admiral! Forty years later, I've never
forgotten that insult.
some terrifying close calls. There was a
common crude horsing around practice at the
time, where a sailor would grab another's butt
and the two would fall to the floor and wrestle
while thirty of their mates stood around them
shouting crude cat calls. It was a way of
letting off steam in a crude sort of way.
Anyone who mistakenly mistook it for
homoeroticism would be killed. So, I
avoided that 'grab-assing,' at all cost least I
somehow seemed to be enjoying it. So, if
my ass were grabbed, and it was, I'd turn around
angrily and bounce the offender's head against
the bulkhead and say, "I don't go for that
shit!" So, as an inadvertant result, everyone thought I
was the straightest guy around because I
wouldn't even fool around for a joke.
During a homophobic witch hunt, the officers
called me in one day and said, "Meyer, you're
the only one we can be sure of; will you help us
find these faggots so we can get rid of them."
I nearly fell over in horror. How tragic
that they thought I was their straightest crewman.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But, I simply pretended
to be a dumb sailor and said, "Sir, I dunno
nothin 'bout dat." And then they said just what
I wanted to hear, "Get out of here, Meyer!"
Terrifying! I was the one they were looking for!
routine investigation for my security clearance,
I was called away from my desk by two NCIS
agents who sat me down in an office and said,
"Meyer, as you know we're conducting a routine
investigation for your clearance, and we
received information that you are a ......"
Between that word and the next, I died of
horror, realizing that I'd been found out and
that I was doomed. I wanted to vomit.
Without pause, of course, he finished the
sentence, "...that you are a user of marijuana."
I wanted to jump up, laugh, clap my hands and
shout, "OH IS THAT ALL!" But, I knew
better and simply managed to look perplexed.
Or my horror was mistaken for looking perplexed.
It was just a game they played to see if anyone
would crack and admit to using marijuana.
By accident, I passed the test. I wanted
to run out of there to a restroom and vomit.
But, I managed to stay calm until they let me
go. I was badly rattled. Forty years
later, I still break out on a terrified sweat
remembering that moment. My heart didn't
stop pounding for a week.
This was the
life of a gay patriot serving in silence.
I really loved the Navy, but after four years of
living in constant terror of being caught or
being killed because of who I am, I didn't
reenlist. I walked away, a free man, and let
my hair grow down to my shoulders. I started looking for a job. I got the one job where
you had to be straight and a veteran to be
hired. I became a DAC, a Department of the
Army Civilian administering Army Reserve units.
Once I was on the job, it was decided that these
civilian administrators ought to be members of
the unit they administered, in case the reserves
were ever activated. So, I was back in
uniform, green instead of blue. Under the
discriminatory policy of the era, if you were
found out, as a civilian or a reservist, you
were interrogated and fired. You could not
be gay and be a part of the military. The policy was so deadly discriminatory that no
one could so much as dare to arch a friendly
eyebrow at anyone. We all had 'gaydar,' we
could tell who was gay, but you had to pretend
such a thing didn't exist. Tragic. Even
talking about not talking about it was
The Army was
far more institutionally prejudiced than the
Navy. There was racial, religious, and
ethnic discrimination non stop. I had
advanced to the rank of Sgt First Class; but
that didn't stop a Warrant Officer CW4 from
amusing himself by coming up to my desk,
clicking his heels Nazi style, and giving me a
straight-arm Nazi salute. He couldn't stop
laughing. I got up and went into the
commander's office and shut the door. The
commander was a Black Colonel; I told him what
had happened, he wasn't amused. The
Warrant Officer's long career ended fifteen
minutes later; but i should not have had to deal
with it. Keeping my sexual orientation
secret was much more difficult in the Army
Reserve. I had a long term life companion
by that time, and I got very sick of looking
over my shoulder in supermarkets, worried that a
unit member might see me shopping with the man I
loved. After ten years of total service, I
left the military in 1978 for the second and
final time, just because I was gay, just to
avoid the ongoing discrimination and terror of
thing, I'd do it all over again if I could,
despite everything! I remain proud as hell
to have served my country. I have no
happens now? Today, gay and lesbian
patriots are volunteering and serving openly and
honorably. Although the Pentagon has gone
to great lengths to ensure a safe and respectful
environment, there is endless discrimination
down the chain of command by those whose bigotry
enables them to believe that they can violate
the rights of those serving under them.
service members, however, must still serve in
silence, hiding who they are due to vague and
conflicting policies; suffering under a cloud of
constant fear. A very few Transgender
patriots who meet the criteria, have stepped
forward and enlisted openly as who they are.
But the stress of enduring training and serving
under a spotlight of suspicion must be
overwhelming. Those few demonstrate what
true courage is all about. Transgender
service academy graduates slated to become
officers, on the other hand, have flat out been
denied commissions. The fear among bigoted
administration and elected officials is that
they could become high ranking officers
demonstrating their integrity and ability to
late for those with that fear, we already have
gay and lesbian Generals and Admirals, both male
and female, retired and still serving. And
there are countless gay and lesbian veterans,
including myself, who became senior NCOs and led
troops during long honorable military careers.
And in fact there are, also, sterling retired
high ranking Transgender veterans both officer
and enlisted who are already an inspiration to
already demonstrated our ability to serve and
lead. Our task now is to ensure our right
to do so.
fmr USN, Sgt First Class USAR