Airman. Defender. Gay Man.

  • Published
  • By SrA Paul James
  • 97th Security Forces Squadron
At around 0700 hours on December 22, 2010, my sleep was interrupted by a phone call from someone in my squadron informing me to report for a commander's directive. When I arrived at the Drug Demand Reduction office, I poured myself a cup of coffee, grabbed two bottles of water and waited patiently for my bladder to decide to cooperate and get the ordeal over with. On the news was our Commander in Chief. I was tired, so I had no clue what was going on for a moment until I listened to the President's words.

"For we are not a nation that says, 'Don't ask, don't tell.' We are a nation that says, 'Out of many, we are one.' We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. Those are the ideals that generations have fought for. Those are the ideals that we uphold today. And now, it is my honor to sign this bill into law."

His words did not fall on deaf ears that morning; but I wasn't sure what to make of them. At the time I wasn't out to anyone and to be so, before that morning, would end my career immediately after it began. What's more, I wasn't even out to myself. Since I began to connect the dots in high school, I had been trying my utmost to suppress a side of me that I considered to be demonic, dark. I told myself that I would never give into my same-sex desires.

When people asked me why I joined the military, I gave a canned response: the economy, stability and a reliable job. Truthfully, I joined because I wanted to be reborn into a new person, one that was disciplined and orderly, as I am today. However, this reawakening didn't take away that part of the old me that I hated most, my desires for the company of other men.

My upbringing was conservative. My brothers and I were raised to think sex and marriage were strictly between a man and a woman. I was not like the other males I had grown up with. Though I could easily fit the role of the God-fearing, conservative son my parents wanted me to be, I knew deep down inside that I was not so picture-perfect. I was a queer, a homosexual, a degenerate, a sodomite, a certain "f-word" that we hear.

When I was in high school, I was on the debate team, my very first debate was over the issue of "same-sex marriage," or as I call it now "marriage." I took my usual born-and-raised conservative stance and vigorously argued against it. When I finished with my speech, a female student in the back of the class had more than a few heated questions for me. The debate quickly fell apart into an argument, and my coach and the rest of the audience could only lean back in their seats and watch us have a go at each other. I didn't realize until it was too late that she was lesbian. I had greatly wounded her identity as a human being and a homosexual.

I fought so hard to deny that part of my life. I tried prayer. I tried ignoring it. I cried at night and even tried to rationalize it all away, almost convincing myself that this was all just a "phase" that young boys go through. Finally, I thought the military would beat it out of me. My step father told me that they would "break me down and build me back up." And I believed that.

So, on May 11, 2010, I boarded a white bus out of Dallas and rode down to San Antonio to begin a new life as an Airman. I worked to perfect my facing movements, push-ups and sit-ups, my run time and worked to solidify my discipline and attitude. I became stronger but not strong enough to change the one thing about me that haunted my dreams. I couldn't change a reality that was slowly consuming me from the inside. I had hardened my heart so much then, forced my mind into submission when I saw the beauty in another man, I didn't bat an eye at the news when our president signed the repeal of that repressive law.

I finally came out about two years ago. I was tired of wrestling with who I eventually came to realize is the true me. The first individual in uniform I spoke with about my struggle (one year after the repeal of DADT) was a Staff Sergeant I looked up to, worked with since my arrival at Altus, and someone who looked after me during my first deployment. He asked me why it took me so long. I replied, "I couldn't trust anyone. Even after that bill was abolished, I didn't want anyone's help; it was my fight."

He looked at me, shook his head and replied, "James, if you can't trust the same people that will pull your rear over the sandbags when under fire, then who can you trust?"

"Out of many, we are one." I get that now.

What it means to serve as an openly gay man in the military means a lot of things, actually. I can once again take pride in my country's ideals. I can fight for freedom for all Americans, including those that are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), and not feel like a hypocrite. I no longer have to betray myself before my brothers and sisters in arms, nor feel ashamed or dishonorable.

Today, as LGB service members can serve openly as the individuals they are, I can feel safe, protected by my second family and valued for who I am. Emma Lazarus' poetic words, adorned by Lady Liberty says, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Our nation claims to be a melting pot of people and culture from all around the world, yet we must stop and check to see who we are leaving out, who we are failing to protect and guide. It fills my heart with joy to see our military has once again answered liberty's call, well before many of our own civilian communities. We accept citizens of all classes, color, gender, and now sexual orientation. We are treated as one. That speaks volumes to the progress we are making as a country.

While I often wish I had the courage to come out when I was younger, I am glad I still chose to wear this uniform. I am a part of a proud heritage of men and women who know the meaning of sacrifice - sacrificing time with family, sacrificing parts of who we were, sacrificing old pride. And in return, as I was promised we are built back up again. We become members of a new family, discovering humanity within ourselves we never knew we had, and gain a pride befitting of warriors, of patriots, of men and women. We have become one.