The second week after I arrived at Fort Drum, N.Y. — my first and only duty station with the Army — I found death threats slipped under the door of my barracks room. I noticed the colors first. Pink, blue and yellow; strangely happy colors at odds with the words written on them. Some were simple: slurs and epithets written in thick black Sharpie, pressed so hard into the paper that it bled through. “Faggot” and “queer fag,” the notes read. A couple were more elaborate: detailed descriptions of what might happen to me if I was caught alone, and proclamations about the wrongness of gays in the military.
I read the most detailed descriptions over again, trying to explain them away as something other than what they were. Maybe they were a joke, or meant for someone else. I reached for my phone and then stopped. If I reported these and they were only a joke, then I would become “that guy.” Taking ridicule — smiling at the most vile and offensive slights with the understanding that they were nothing more than jokes — is the most important social capital in the military. Was I willing to risk losing that capital before I had the chance to earn it? I tore the bright sticky notes into confetti and tossed them into the trash.
The military is built on a foundation of earning trust and proving yourself to your peers and superiors as capable. Being new to a unit isn’t unlike being a new employee at any other job. People are cautious, even wary, until you’ve shown you can handle the work. Perhaps it didn’t help that I was an intelligence analyst in an infantryman’s world — a support soldier in a combat soldier’s unit. But none of that had been mentioned in the notes. My capability wasn’t in question, nor was my duty position. It wasn’t my effectiveness or value to the unit that elicited these noxious notes but something far removed from my control. Something that after September 2011 was supposed to be meaningless.
After a few months at Fort Drum, I discovered a group that convened for secret support meetings. No two people were similar — a woman who had been in the service nearly as long as I had been alive, a married father, an infantry soldier a rank below me. Each person identified as something other than heterosexual, but only privately. In their everyday lives, they pretended to be straight. We met in different places — in barracks rooms and offices after hours — but always in secret. Sometimes it was to console or commiserate. Other times I think it was to simply know that we weren’t alone.
During these meetings I always talked about my anxiety over not knowing who had written those sticky notes and if they were standing next to me in formation or would be the person I sat beside, alone, on my next 24-hour shift. The others revealed truths I considered much darker than my own: The woman spoke about the sexual assault she never reported during the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for fear that an investigation would unveil that she was a lesbian; the husband spoke about feeling trapped but fearing that revealing himself would cost him everything; and the infantryman confessed that he drank himself to sleep because he could never claim what he was aloud. At least I hadn’t had to endure any of their horrors, I would think. Remembering this was sometimes helpful — as if I were seeing things with greater perspective, finding the silver lining. Other times it made me nearly sick with shame to compare my fears with theirs. But I never stopped going.
I left the Army in December 2014, but I still feel as if I am coming to terms with my identity. There are moments when it feels wrong to claim my status as a veteran; as if being gay made me less of a soldier and somehow invalidated my service. These moments of vulnerability bring me back to when one of my superiors told me not to bring a date to the military ball; to when I found “Fag” spelled out in the snow on my windshield with urine; to all the times I avoided those who showed me compassion, for fear that it was a trick and that they had been the one to slip the notes beneath my door. Every memory evokes an emotion: rage that I had to serve with a constant sense of fear of my fellow soldiers; paralyzing sadness for those who endured abuses worse than I can know; and, the worst, guilt over the service members — gay or straight or transgender — who died while serving in the military while my body is still whole.
I don’t know if these feelings will ever go away. But it is when the guilt is most crippling that I remember my support group. That chance to share an unseen pain and know there were others like me struggling each day still helps me wake up each morning, pull on my boots and go about my day.