Com­ing of age as a gay man in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell army

GA Voice - - Out Spoken -

GUEST EDITORIAL By ROB SMITH

The first two min­utes of my mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence were a blur. No sooner had I got­ten off the bus at Fort Ben­ning and re­trieved my lug­gage, as di­rected, and stood in front of it, I made the mis­take of glanc­ing at the drill sergeants out of the side of my eye. They en­tered the area with their chest-jut­ting, tough-guy swag­ger. They seemed some­how larger than life: tall, an­gry, and ter­ri­fy­ing. They meant busi­ness, and first up on the agenda was to scare the liv­ing hell out of all of us.

I felt ev­ery eye­ball in the room on me, the lone pep­per spot in a sea of bald heads and clean-shaven white faces. I felt weak and ex­posed. The other re­cruits were do­ing their best to fo­cus their at­ten­tion di­rectly for­ward and pre­tend not to no­tice the scene that was be­ing per­formed by our new su­pe­rior for their ben­e­fit.

The drill sergeant looked at me, study­ing me. Although I was try­ing to main­tain my for­ward gaze, I re­al­ized it was bor­der­ing on the im­pos­si­ble and de­cided on a split-sec­ond act of de­fi­ance. I looked him di­rectly in the eyes, try­ing des­per­ately to swal­low the fear that en­veloped me. As I looked into them, us­ing ev­ery bit of my re­solve to keep his gaze, I sensed a white-hot ha­tred that sim­mered be­low the sur­face. I en­gaged him there for what seemed like hours, giv­ing him my brand new “don’t fuck with me” look. In my mind I thought of ev­ery rap video, ev­ery “hood” movie I’d ever seen with a young black guy killing some­one, sell­ing drugs or rob­bing some­one, men who I was told by my thug­gish cousins that I could never be like be­cause I liked books in­stead of rap mu­sic, writ­ing in­stead of sports.

The drill sergeant’s eyes twin­kled and a smile spread widely across his lips. Sud­denly, I was afraid, and I felt a wave of fear un­leash within me. I knew what was com­ing, which was pos­si­bly the worst thing that could come out right now. He looked di­rectly at me then stepped back to make his pro­nounce­ment to the room­ful of re­cruits that I would be spend­ing the next six months with. “What are you, a fuck­ing fag­got?” he said. It was less of a ques­tion and more of a pro­nounce­ment, made loud enough so that ev­ery­one in the stag­ing area could hear it. “Yeah, that’s what you are, right?” I flinched, tak­ing two steps back and nearly fall­ing back­wards over the lug­gage that was stacked neatly behind me. I quickly re­gained my foot­ing. That would not be a good way to start this process. I had to think quickly, to do some­thing that would end this now. “No, Drill Sergeant!” The words came out of my mouth as un­ex­pect­edly as the vomit a few hours after I’d had my first shots of whiskey on my sev­en­teenth birthday the past sum­mer. His head whipped back around to­ward me. The other re­cruits and the of­fi­cers staged in front of us were barely pre­tend­ing not to pay at­ten­tion any longer. This was quickly be­com­ing quite the scene. “What did you say?” “No, Drill Sergeant, I’m not a fag­got, Drill Sergeant!” I yelled.

“You ever eye­ball me like that again and I will end you, you fag­got,” he spat.

I waited for a smile, for some sign of the showy badass he had put on for the com­pany for the last five min­utes, but there was none there. It was the real him, and he wasn’t a fan of my fake bravado or the lit­tle stare down I had given him ear­lier. I was con­fused and looked down, but in­stinc­tively looked back up and straight ahead. Through my pe­riph­eral vision I could’ve sworn I saw the faintest smile on his face, but there was noth­ing happy about it. It was grim and fear­some, some­how de­vi­ous. For the first time since I had come to Fort Ben­ning and the Army on a whim, I was afraid. What­ever he and his co­horts had in store for me and the other 124 re­cruits over the next six months wasn’t go­ing to be fun. Play­time was over.

The pre­ced­ing was an ex­cerpt from “Clos­ets, Com­bat and Com­ing Out,” avail­able on Ama­zon and wher­ever LGBT books are sold. For more in­for­ma­tion about Rob Smith, visit www.rob­smithon­line.com.

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