We called them “Witch Hunts”, and in my three years in the Air Force, I had seen several of them and heard about many more. The Office of Special Investigations, which is the Air Force’s gestapo, would throw out a net and haul in anyone who was gay, thought they were gay or could spell the word “gay”. They didn’t care.
In June 1979, I was serving my third year in the Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. I was 21 and spending weekend nights at the city’s various gay bars. I knew they were off limits to military personnel, but so were the strip clubs. Funny, OSI never trolled them looking for wayward airmen who stumbled out of the topless bars after spending two weeks’ salary on Candi and Tambi. They turned a blind eye on those rule-breakers because boys will be boys, right?
But the mean-mugging OSI officers handled the gay bars and those of us who went to them differently. Boy, did they handle us differently.
At that time, I was struggling with the idea of being gay. I sashayed around base and San Antonio wearing boots and a cowboy hat that would have held enough water to fill one of the Great Lakes. I wore the trophy buckles I had won at high school rodeos, all of them as big as a hubcap, and I posed at the gay bars, mainly El Jardin, the city’s oldest gay watering hole. I had my eye on Carl, one of the bartenders, who looked just like Christopher Reeve. Just one eye, mind you, because I wasn’t really queer.
On a Monday following a weekend of gay bar-hopping with friends, my surly first sergeant told me to report to OSI. His eyes bore into me with disgust, and my insides turned to liquid. A summons from the Air Force gestapo was never a good thing, and my brain flipped through the dozens of reasons those dark creatures wanted to speak to me. I knew there could be only one, but I prayed it was because they thought I had robbed a bank and not because I had been to a gay bar. The former would have been better.
Two OSI officers told me to sit down when I entered their office. I knew one of them. He was a first lieutenant who was having an affair with one of my gay friends. I couldn’t stand him. Not only did he treat my friend badly, but he was a hypocrite. He was kicking gay airmen out of the Air Force during the day and banging my friend at night. Jerk.
The officers didn’t waste any time.
“You were at a homosexual bar on San Pedro this past weekend,” one of them said. The other officer, my friend’s boyfriend, glared at me, and his smile spread out like a snake warming up by the fire. He didn’t know I knew about him.
I was trapped. I couldn’t say I was straight and was there with gay friends. They’d order me to give my friends up, although I knew someone had already turned us all in. All it took was one phone call, one hissed word, to OSI, and they were on you.
“I was there,” I admitted.
For an hour, the OSI officers interrogated me, probing into every crack of my gay life.
“Who have you had sex with?” one of them asked.
“No one,” I said, which was the truth. Not that I didn’t want to have sex, but I hadn’t found the courage to do it. A roll in the hay with another guy would be proof I’m gay, and my tortured Catholic brain wasn’t ready to process the notion. But, yeah, I wanted to.
“You’ve had sex with a man,” the officers insisted. “Who was it with?”
I could only admit to kissing a man, Carl, but I wasn’t telling them his name.
The interrogation was nasty. They sought to humiliate and embarrass me, and they succeeded. By the time it was over, I could have slid under the exit door instead of going through it. I wanted to die.
“We’re recommending you be discharged,” my friend’s smarmy boyfriend said. “You’ll be out of the Air Force in two weeks.”
That evening, I found out all my friends who had been with me that weekend were subjected to the same interrogation. We were all on our way out.
I fought the discharge as they sent me to see the chaplain and a psychiatrist. The doctor told me to stop fighting the discharge and just get out.
“Your kind isn’t wanted here,” he said. I remember the words clearly. The chaplain, God’s representative, wasn’t any kinder.
“Homosexuals are a threat to security,” he said.
My commander relieved me of duty, and I was given menial jobs on base while I went from office to office, defending my case. I had never had sex with a man and was guilty only of being in a bar that was designated as off-limits. Discipline me for that, I said, but don’t kick me out.
“OSI has no proof I’m gay,” I said over and over. “I don’t deserve to be kicked out of the Air Force. I was Airman of the Quarter, for gosh sakes.”
I could have had three Medals of Honor, for all they cared. It was 1979, and the tottering march for equality was beginning to gain momentum. The AIDS crisis was still around the corner, out of our view, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still 14 years away. In those days, they took no prisoners.
Fortunately, because they couldn’t prove I had had sex with a man, I was given an honorable discharge. They turned over every rock to disprove it, though, and on a hot, muggy June day, I was shown the door — me and the tens of thousands of other military personnel over the years who were “a threat to security”.
Today, on Veterans Day, I think of that humiliated young man who boarded a Greyhound bus back home to the Panhandle. What was I going to tell my family? For a few weeks, I told them the Air Force doctors found out I had asthma, but the lie crumbled. I could buck hay all day in the heat without being winded. Full of shame, I told them the truth. The Air Force didn’t want me, but it turned out my family did.
Thirty-four years later, gay men and women can now serve openly in the military, and their spouses are entitled to all the benefits enjoyed by straight spouses. That victory is a salve on the scar that can still cause a twitch when touched. Thousand of men and women have marched, shouted and even quietly pleaded for equality over the years. We’ve come a long way.
When I look at my DD 214, the Certificate of Discharge from Active Duty, the date of discharge glares like a spastic neon sign over a seedy bar. 1979. I still had one year to go, but “my kind wasn’t wanted”. What kind is that? Loyal, proud — the kind who teared up when the Air Force Song played? No, surely not that kind.
Today, thousands of out gay men and women are celebrating the third Veterans Day as active duty members of the military. They’re standing on the shoulders of the thousands of men and women who fought for equality before “don’t ask, don’t tell” existed and who fought to abolish it after it was enacted.
Thank you to all those who moved our march for equality in the military forward. And to all the active duty gay men and women — serve on, brothers and sisters. Into the “wild blue yonder”, to the “shores of Tripoli”, “count off the cadence loud and strong” and “sail on to victory”.