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Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a policy instituted by President Clinton in 1993. While intended as a mechanism for LGBT servicemembers to serve in the Armed Forces, it created an environment of fear, blackmail, and intimidation. Over 17,000 servicemembers would be discharged from the military under this policy before its eventual repeal in 2011.
Life under this policy impacted the day-to-day lives of LGBT servicemembers. How exactly did gay and lesbian servicemembers live under this policy? Where would they go in their free time? How would they meet one another? How was the sex? All these are questions that I am peppered with every time I am sitting at a gay bar and I telling someone about my military service.
I entered the United States Air Force via the Reserve Officer Training Corps in May of 2005. Through the Air Force, I spent six-and-a-half years globetrotting from Japan to Germany before eventually separating. Having been out as a civilian, I knew there would be changes to life as I knew it. I reflected on this during my attendance of the New York City Gay Pride parade a month after I was sworn in. I was meeting so many nice guys, while at the same time having this sinking feeling of, “This is it.” Would I be able to confide in anyone about my sexuality as a gay man? Would I ever be able to go to a gay bar? Would I ever have sex with a man again?
My journey in the Air Force took me places and showed me experiences that never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined. While intimidating at first, I soon became comfortable in my own skin and no longer worried about what people said about me when I was not looking. I found that having sex proved to be extremely easy in an organization dominated by men that are under constant pressure to exude masculinity. But best of all, I was able to form friendships everywhere I went that would be critical for me to maintain my sanity, have a shoulder to cry on, go to out to get hammered, check out boys, and have an overall sense of security. We all knew we had each other’s backs and would actively work to keep each other out of trouble. A policy as draconian as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell created strange bedfellows in the LGBT community. It was common place for everyone, ranging from Colonel to Private, to intermingle in private settings while maintaining a professional appearance in public. Even though I knowingly thumbed my nose at the military’s social norms, I am and will remain unapologetic because compliance would have sentenced me to solitude. I would not have survived in the military as long as I did.
I do not write this as a way of representing the thousands of LGBT servicemembers and veterans. They all have their own stories to tell, and this one is uniquely mine. The things I saw, the people I met, the countless sexual encounters… are all uniquely mine. So here goes…
Chapter 1: Stepping Back in the Closet
I touched down in Okinawa on a sweltering summer day in July of 2005. Michelle, a petite Lieutenant from my squadron, was the first person to greet me was going to help me get integrated into my unit and life at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Assigned to the 18th Munitions Squadron, I was to work in the Munitions Storage Area and oversee the inspection, transportation, and storage of conventional weapons. From the day I reported in, I felt a sense of awkwardness. I had made the naïve decision to repress my sexuality and do everything I can to “butch it up.” I was terrified of being outed under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but even more, I was afraid of what people would think about me. My father, a man who had originally objected to me joining the military, warned of a very homophobic culture. He even went as far as to say, “be mindful of that gay stuff over there,” as he hugged me and kissed me goodbye at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Trying to put up such a façade proved to be an abject failure as I proved unable to hide the way I truly carried myself and the way I spoke. What also did not help was that I had one screw-up after another as a young officer. From being late to work to screwing up projects given to me, my fuck ups were one after another. While mistakes were common and expected from junior officers, my gayness exponentially exacerbated those screw-ups. It was not too long before I became known as “that faggot LT” among the officer corps on base. I would later have scores of people tell me that they had heard of me from superiors that were gossiping. I felt like I was living up to the notion that gays and lesbians were unfit for military service, a feeling that felt like a kick in the balls.
Repressing my sexual desires would prove to only last three weeks. One night I went out on my own to a bar and restaurant strip outside the base called “Gate 2 Street.” These bars were filled with Airmen and Marines that were drinking and flirting. I ducked into a bar where a band was performing and sat on a couch next to a group of Marines. I strike up a conversation with one of the Marines about work, where I went to school, and all that jazz. This being a gaggle fuck of Marines, the conversation quickly moves to sex and fucking pussy. I’m thinking “Ugh, fuck, really?” Now it must have been how drunk I was or the fact that I thought the guy was a bit of a hunk, but I whisper to the one next to me that I am not really into women. I must have stumbled onto some sort of underground code words because he immediately told me that he is bi. I respond that I am gay and we immediately nudge closer to each other on the couch. I throw my arm around him in a drunken “straight bro” manner, but we both knew my motive. He and his friends needed a place to crash because it was after their curfew and going on base would mean getting busted. Thankfully, I had just moved into a house off base and did not have a curfew. Ahh…the perks of being an officer.
We get back to my house and they all immediately pass out, except for me and the bisexual marine. He nudged me out and onto my balcony and right there he kissed me. This was the first man I had kissed since leaving behind my previous life and becoming a military officer. We then proceed to voraciously suck each other off, then jerked each other off until we came. We went back inside. I went to my bed and he passed out in the living room with his buddies. The next morning he and his friends got in a cab and headed home. I never saw him again, and my luck would not prove to be that well for the next several months.
After moping around for three months, I get a notice that I am ordered to travel to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama for The Air and Space Basic Course. ASBC was a six week military training course for newly commissioned second lieutenants. I was to attend from the end of October to mid December. I was surprisingly elated. While Alabama may not be known for its LGBT accomodations, I was able to look up a gay bar on the internet that was about 15 miles from Maxwell Air Foce Base. This was to be the first gay bar that I had stepped inside since entering the active Air Force duty. I packed and flew to Alabama, arriving Saturday night. After flying halfway around the world for duty and checking into my room at 8 PM, I immediately called a taxicab and was well on my way to The Oasis Bar. Jetlag was not going to stop me from going out.
Travelling to the Oasis was like something out of a horror movie. I expected a man with a chainsaw to run out into the street at any moment. Nonetheless, the gay bar was a top priority. Finally we arrive at a gravel parking in front of what appeared to be a biker bar. I stepped inside to find myself in the middle of the annual Oasis Halloween party. Drag queens, men dressed as Batman and Wonderwoman, I felt so at home! A drag queen walked up to me and we chatted for a bit. When she heard my story, she gave me a big hug, bought me a drink, and posed for a picture with me. Eventually, a man dressed as Death approached me and swooned over me to the point that I quickly made out with him, smearing his makeup. He graciously gave me a ride back to the base where I passed out immediately.
During the duration of this course I was never in town for the weekend. The Air Education and Training Command, the Air Force command that presided over my training, had a policy where people attending military training are allowed to go anywhere in the United States on weekends. As long as you were back by Monday, you did not have to use vacation days. As such, five out of the six weekends I had during the course I was gone from the local area, hell, gone from the state. I needed to feel like a confident gay man once again, so I made a point of doing as much travelling as possible during my stint back in the US. The most frequent place I travelled was Atlanta, a city with quite the notoriously fun gay scene.
I had many friends that I reunited with during ASBC. One particular was Ada, a girl that I met when I went to Field Training at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida as a ROTC cadet. She and I became instant friends because both of us were considered “outsiders” in my unit there. We got yelled at the most and punished the most, something that made us enough of friends for me to confess to her that I was gay. We got so close that we were reprimanded one day because we created a perception that we were sexually intimate during Field Training, something she and I laughed our asses off about later. I saw her at Maxwell and immediately wanted to go out and do stuff together. I convince Ada and her friend, Tiffany, to come out with me to Atlanta overt the weekend. By day during the trip, we were touring the city. By night, however, we were out in the gay area. Tiffany was one to turn in early that weekend, so it was just me and Ada to go out. We head over to a pavilion of gay bars where Ada and I catch up. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a guy winking at me and raising his glass.
“What should I do?” I naively ask. Apparently, being out on the scene with a straight woman kind of cloud one's judgement on the social dynamics of gay men.
“Go over there!”Ada said. I did and after talking for a bit, I started making out with this guy. About 30 minutes later, I force myself to pull away from him and get back to Ada. We then head to a bar across the street, where Ada and I witnessed the most offensive drag show. The drag queen there sang a song while on a plastic toilet, then out of where no where, pulling out from the toilet a “Mr. Hanky” feces doll similar to the character on the TV show South Park. Ada was a bit horrified, while I just laughed my ass off at the comedic genius of that moment. Ada and I enjoy the rest of the night and drive back to Maxwell the next day.
Another place I went was back to New York City during a three-day weekend for Veteran’s Day in November. Although I was not a native New Yorker, New York was the place where I was schooled on all things gay: how to pick up men, sexual paraphernalia, sex clubs, you name it, I probably learned and experienced it, and lived to talk about it. When I came out to my parents, they did not take it well. From not trusting me whenever I went out, to conversation after conversation about how my “lifestyle” could result in me becoming infected with HIV, the situation at home was “tense” to say the least. After graduating from high school, I sought refuge with my Aunt Carina, my dad’s sister that lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. I came out to her almost immediately, and that same day I told her I was gay, she copied the keys to her apartment and told me I was welcome to stay with her whenever I wanted or needed. Carina was a crisis counselor for troubled youth, particularly LGBT youth that had been thrown out of their homes by their families, so engaging my issue came naturally to her. Carina knew that the best way for me to be an informed gay man was to simply push me out the door to experience it all, which is exactly what she did.
“Carlos, are you going to go out?” she would ask looking at the clock and wondering why I was still watching TV. I would then get dressed and head down to the West Village or Chelsea in order to dance, flirt with men, and go home with a man every now and then. Upon coming home, Carina would say, “Bueno! Where have you been, you little slut?!” with the most devilish smile imaginable. Because of all this, coming back to New York City made absolute sense during my temporary stint in the US. I went out to all of my previous evening haunts, sometimes even running into people I knew before leaving for Japan.
After finishing ASBC, I return to my alma mater, Penn State University. The campus grounds and surrounding town, State College, were rich with memories of my gay youth as I struggled affirm my identity with confidence. This was a place where I was scared of being outed that I refused to associate with the LGBT student organization, an action that I regret to this very day. The President at the time, Christi, knew of me and had met me at parties a couple of times. While she always welcomed me to join the group at events and socials, she understood my fear given my enrollment in ROTC. Moreover, she admired my commitment to enter the military because in her words, “Change comes by a brave few that dare to do the difficult.”
The main reason for returning was because a couple of my friends were going to be sworn in as officers, and I wanted to be there to witness that. Before doing so, however, I contacted some of my college friends, Michael and Miranda, about my visit. Miranda invited me over to her apartment where she surprised me with a large group of gays and lesbians that I had considered to be the first gay friends I had ever made. By the time I was a senior in college, I was of age to be in the bar and at a point where I simply did not give a fuck who saw me there or who said anything. So I would go to Chumley’s, the only gay bar in State College when I was in school. It was at Chumley’s where I met Michael, Ryan, Sana, Miranda, and a myriad of guys and girls that I came to call friends. Those very same people all showed up at Miranda’s apartment that night. I was so overwhelmed that I was in tears. In Okinawa, I had spent so many months in solitude and secrecy. The constant phony façade that I had to put up wore on me deeply, so when surrounded by the very people that knew who exactly I was, people that accepted me as me, I simply could not hold back the tears.
The trip back to the United States was a catharsis of emotions. I was so sick of having to hide in solitiude simply because that was what military law demanded of me. Having felt so rejuvenated, sexy, and having had a ton of sex back in the US, going back to sexual repression was not an option. Upon returning to Japan, seeking out the gay community became priority one in my personal life. However, the first order of business was to establish a confidant that I could trust with my sexuality.
The natural choice was Michelle, another lieutenant in my squadron. I had come to grow close to her and her friend Brooke, a “Double D” blond that worked at the American Red Cross Station on base. From the get go, we had gone out together frequently. They initiated me to my first “Banana Show” experience, where I watched a woman shove bananas up her vagina, cut them into pieces, and then rapid fire them out of her cooch! How could these girls not be ready for a gay confession? When I returned to Japan, it was in the midst of a four-day weekend leading up to Christmas Day. Michelle, Brooke, and I, being single, decided to spend that Friday out together at the bar with other single people, raising shot glasses in honor of Jesus. While sitting at our table, I just go for it. Since the bar was crowded, I write on a cocktail napkin, “I’m gay,” and slide it over to them. Both read the napkin and smiled. “It’s cool,” they said as Brooke took the pen and blacked out what was written. Brooke and Michelle obviously knew I was gay and were simply waiting for me to them.
Over the course of my time in Okinawa, I had heard rumors of a gay bar that was right outside of my base. When I returned I attempted to do an internet search of gay bars that were nearby, but all I could find are bars in Naha, a city 20 miles away, and these bars were not welcoming to Americans. So I turned to Gay.com, my only option for reaching out to gays in Okinawa. I come across a “fugly” old man that was constantly trolling the site for young Asian men to come over and sit on his lap. Apparently, this man was into Latino boys as well because boy did he start talking to me fast! We got to talking and I ask about the alleged gay bar near Kadena Air Base and he confirmed that there was one nearby. He said he would give me the directions if I promised to come over to his apartment, to which I naturally lied and “SURE!”
After getting the directions from the ugly troll, I get dressed, flag down a taxicab, and head to a park down the street from Gate 2 Street. When you live in Japan, often times you will encounter streets with no names, so directions often take the form of “Turn right at the big tree” or “turn left at the sign with the happy girl”. This time was no different. I had to turn left at the green sign, turn left at the traffic light, and then an immediate left into an alleyway and I will find a bar named “Fellow”. By the time I found myself in the alleyway, I was thinking, “Am I looking for a fucking speakeasy because there is no possible way there is a gay bar here?” Suddenly, I see a random door on the wall with blue sign that said “Fellow.” As I approach the door, there is a faint sound of music coming from the door. I open the door and I am greeted by dozens of American guys dressed in drag along with a shit ton of Japanese people sitting at the bar. I was home!
An American man in his mid-40s walked up to me and asked if I am lost. I tell him I was looking for the gay bar. All of a sudden his eyes widened and he asked how on earth did I find this place. I proceeded to tell him about the troll from Gay.com but he interrupts and asks how I managed to find the place alone since the bar was in the most obscure, abandoned rape-alley in history. I simply told him I had good directions. He introduced himself as Mark and then introduced me to all the servicemembers. It was a bit of a blur that night, but I did settle down with a guy named Victor, an aircraft mechcanic that was friends with most of the guys there. We talk for two seconds before we proceed to shove our tongues down each other’s throats. Such was the beginning of my time with the massive gay entourage in Okinawa.