Hill Air Force Base, Utah. 1999.
It was my first duty station and a small group of us were sitting in a break room situated behind the squadron’s radio maintenance workshop. The room was actually the back of a large vehicle bay where we parked and loaded our 5-ton cargo trucks and deuces (2.5-ton cargo trucks). Surrounded by radio equipment, rolls of coaxial cables, and boxes of supplies, one of the airmen sat in his chair and complained about the way people treated him. He was a Mormon, and he was tired of being told he was part of a cult. The airman leaned back in his chair and lamented about how certain people stereotype his particular faith. He said he was weary of the ignorance of individuals who called him crazy or associated him with strange rituals that had nothing to do with the Mormon religion.
I quietly agreed. I had been taught by teachers at my private Christian high school that Mormonism (along with any other religion that deviated from the Baptist church) was a cult. Even as a self-proclaimed Christian at the time, that kind of polarized thinking didn’t sit well with me. So that day, in an effort not to be one of those ignorant individuals, I started a dialogue with Mormon service members in our radio workshop (there were several others).
A few weeks later, the same airman complained about homosexuals (a subject that didn’t come up very often in the workshop). He said he didn’t want anything to do with gays. He added that if he ever met one, he’d want to stay as far away as possible.
When I heard this, I was still in the closet. Buried deep in the closet. I’m talking about sealed-beneath-the-floor-boards-of-the-closet deep. It was more my religious background than anything else that kept me in there. But it was statements from my Mormon friend, along with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that kept that closet door locked at all times.
So, I said nothing. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who saw the blatant irony in his statements. Other airman criticized him for being so dismissive. A few even mentioned they had gay friends and that they deserved the same respect you would give any individual. Encouragingly, this perspective hasn’t changed. According to the DoD report on the repeal of DADT, 29.6 percent of military personnel believe service members coming out will have a negative, or more than negative, effect on unit cohesion.
But that’s still 29.6 percent. There are still individuals in the military who are ignorant or outright hateful to homosexuals. Coming out will be difficult or next to impossible for some service members. But on September 20th, the closet door will be kicked down. And had DADT not existed when I was in the Air Force, I would have politely replied to my Mormon friend that I’m not to be generalized either. No one is – gay or straight, Mormon or agnostic. In the end, the only thing that really matters in the military is the mission – and watching your buddy’s back while he or she watches yours.