I didn’t grow up with military service in mind. Honestly, I joined the Air Force because I wanted to be an astronaut. In sixth grade, I went to a space camp and asked, simply, “How do I do this?”
From then on, I became obsessed with the Air Force. I was going to join the U.S. Air Force Academy, and nothing was going to change my mind. I even carried around the Academy’s college handbook in my backpack throughout high school.
I had such high aspirations for being in the military; I thought I’d be joining one huge family. But early on, I realized that wasn’t going to be the case. If the military was a family, it was one that wasn’t accepting of me. And that can make a person feel trapped and alone.
Before even enlisting in 2005, the fear of being outed was on my mind. That was because at the time, you couldn’t be gay and also serve in the military. Back when social media consisted of AOL chat rooms, people would mock me when I told them I wanted to join the Air Force Academy.
“‘Oh, you’re trying to go into the Air Force Academy, and you’re a fag?’” was something I heard often.
So I kept it in. After high school I attended Valley Forge Military Academy, a military prep school and junior college in Pennsylvania, and I made sure to stay tight-lipped about my sexuality. It wasn’t long before I saw first-hand what happened to people like me who didn’t keep quiet.
One of the cadets had been talking to other gay men online. Eventually word got out, and other cadets began blackmailing and harassing him. He was terrified, and it was my first experience of seeing what could happen to me under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was still in effect. The law allowed a gay man or woman to serve in the military — so long as they stayed closeted and no one knew. If they were outed, they could be kicked out.
By the time I realized my dream and enrolled at the Air Force Academy a year later, a deep loneliness had set in. At some point, you realize that you are gay and that you need to seek out your own happiness and find other people like you. So that’s what I started to do.
What began as a way to simply connect and make friends with other gay cadets on Craigslist — the Academy has a unique zip code that makes it easy to find each other — turned into a nightmare. One professor, who was and still is very vocal about his ties to an anti-gay Christian organization, found out and began harassing me.
When I graduated in 2009, I was being blackmailed because of my sexual orientation. This continued even after I moved down to Alabama to start my technical training. Eventually, I had a breakdown. I couldn’t handle the stress, and I came out to my straight friends serving alongside me. They were all so supportive and understanding. The next day, they voted me their flight commander.
To these guys, being gay and in the military was not a big deal. And that, for me, was a big deal — that here’s all these straight guys whom I just came out to, who learned about my situation, and they not only supported me, they also saw me as a leader.
That kind of empowered me to say to myself, “Wow, maybe I can change some things.”
So I did.
In 2010, just before DADT was repealed, I started an organization called OutServe. Though its advocacy has grown in scope in the years since, OutServe’s original purpose was to build an underground network for gay service members. I advocated under a pseudonym — JD Smith — and worked on telling stories to national news networks while appearing in shadow to preserve my identity.
But more than the activism, OutServe-SLDN, as it’s now known, was starting to connect people at bases. For the first time ever, service members deployed to Iraq could find another gay person and connect with them over a cup of coffee. Or if someone from Ohio was redeployed to a base in Alabama, it would be easier for them to find other gay people.
That social network is the most important thing that OutServe-SLDN has ever created, and it is my proudest accomplishment because I feel it saved lives. Seeing it succeed, I finally felt like I was creating that bit of family that was missing from the military for me and others like me.
OutServe-SLDN has grown tremendously since I left the service in January 2017. And even though DADT has been repealed, it’s still not safe to be gay in the military.
Though I never faced direct and explicit homophobia while on base, after the 2016 presidential election someone said to my face, for the first time, “Maybe this time fags won’t be allowed to serve.”
And now, with the threat of a transgender ban on the table, we need advocates more than ever.
It’s like what Harvey Milk said, which is at the end of the battle, you have to take a risk. You have to be visible. And the moment LGBTQ people in the military are not visible anymore is the moment that other young gay kids don’t think that they can serve. So yes, it is going to be risky. And it is going to be hurtful, but we need gay service members to stay the course and stay visible — as much as possible.
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As told to staff writer Joseph Darius Jaafari. This essay has been edited for style and clarity. Read more stories of service here.
Homepage photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images.