Serving in Silence before DADT
The following guest blog is by Denny Meyer, a veteran of both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army. Meyer is the editor of Gay Military Signal, an online publication that has documented the stories of LGBT veterans for many years. Here, he recounts serving before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became a reality for thousands of men and women in the U.S. military.
By Denny Meyer
February 9th, 1968; Miami, Florida: My day began long before dawn. By 7 AM, right hand raised, I was sworn in to the United States Navy alongside several thousand others that morning. Then, 4,000 young men were ordered to strip down to their underwear for the induction process. How many other volunteers were gay, I wondered. Suddenly, a Petty Officer jumped up on a table and shouted, “All right, mother f****rs, line up! Nuts to butts. I want you so close that the man in front of you starts to smile; if he laughs, back off a little.” Everyone laughed, so I did too. “Oh my God,” I thought, “What have I done? How am I ever going to survive this!” If I’d shrieked, everyone would have known, and my day would have been over. That was the idea, I suppose, to smoke out the queers as soon as possible. “Breathe,” I told myself, “you’re doing this because you want to.”
A month before, on my university campus, fellow students were protesting the war in Vietnam; and some of them burned the American flag. As a first generation American, child of WWII Holocaust refugees, that pushed my button. “Its time to pay my country back for my family’s freedom,” I thought. My gay friends told me, “You can’t do that; you’re a little faggot!” “Watch me!” I told them. I served ten years in two services and left honorably as a Sergeant First Class, USAR. Nearly forty five years later, I don’t regret my youthful patriotic impulse. I’m proud of my service and I’d do it again. But, it wasn’t easy.
Later that first morning, we were examined in a factory production line process, moving from the eye exam, to the “cough” exam, and to the psychologist sitting at a little table rubber stamping forms. “Any problem with homosexuality?” He asked. This was it! “No,” I said firmly. After all, I had no problem being gay; but I knew I was lying. “Next!” He muttered without looking up. And that was that, that was all there was to it. I was ‘in.’ I was an active duty sailor in the United States Navy.
The next big shock came at 12:30 AM after a very long day, after a 4 hour bumpy ride in a steel grey Navy school bus from Chicago’s O’Hara Airport to Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The bus pulled inside the gate and stopped; the Arctic wind howled off Lake Michigan; it was about 40 below outside. The door opened, a Petty Officer got on the steps and shouted, “All right mother f****rs, Off the bus; you’re in a world of sh*t!” “Oh my God,” I thought, “what have I done!”
Any old vet will tell you that the abuse of boot camp “builds character.” But they don’t do that anymore. Anyway, I made it through and was assigned directly to the USS Forrestal, the aircraft carrier, to replace one of the 134 sailors killed in the fire a year before, off the coast of Vietnam. My rack was two feet below the flight deck, in a newly rebuilt compartment for 200 young men, directly below the spot where burning jet fuel had burned my predecessor to death.
On the first morning aboard ship, there was a mock inspection, a hazing of newbies, by midlevel Petty Officers who had better things to do at 6:30 AM. As we came naked out of the shower room, we had to walk the gauntlet between them, as they made lewd comments. Today, that would be called homoerotic sexual harassment. I knew what to do; I laughed it off.
For the next ten years, I laughed off all the regular constant homophobic comments. It really pissed me off; but I loved the military, I loved serving my country; so I stayed and reenlisted over and over. But, finally, after a decade, after having moved up the ranks into leadership, I had enough of being insulted every single day. By 1978, gay rights were emerging just outside the base gates. I was proud of my service; but I also wanted to be proud of who I was. I had a long term companion that I didn’t want to have to hide anymore. I simply didn’t reenlist yet again. I regretted leaving almost as much as I regretted joining on that first day of service.
Back then, for those who served from WWII through the early 1990s, we called what we did, “Serving in Silence.” This was before DADT, when being gay was totally forbidden and simply made you “unfit to serve.” If you were found out, you could be killed, shot in the back or thrown overboard in the middle of the night at sea, or you’d be dishonorably discharged and disgraced for life. There were “witch hunts” where anyone who was suspected would be interrogated for weeks or months, threatened with life in prison, and terrorized into giving up the names of anyone else they knew who was homosexual. So, to be secure, it was very lonely. There was no help, no SLDN, no one to tell you your rights and look out for you; nothing. That was another reason I left, before it was too late.
Aboard ship, I avoided the usual normal horseplay of young sailors at sea, terrified that I’d be found out. So, inadvertently, I was considered to be the straightest guy around. During a witch hunt, the officers called me in and said, “Meyer, you’re the only one we can be sure of; will you help us find these queers.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As always, I knew what to do and muttered, “I dunno nothin’ ‘bout dat, Sir.” Its funny now, it wasn’t then. It was terrifying!
The news media today talk about those who served, and were discharged, under “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell”.
I’m sharing this story so that we do not forget the many thousands of patriots who served in silence long before; so that we may remember their courage and sacrifice.
If you’d like to hear more from Denny, check out the YouTube video below.