Making gays lie is no honor

McCarthy Coyle

July 20, 1993|By McCarthy Coyle

DEAR Sam Nunn:

I do not believe you have provided truly honorable service to the nation and the military during these past six months.

You and I both served as enlisted men in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Cold War during the 1950s. You're only a few months older than me. Each of us did our basic training at Cape May, N.J. You finished your six months of active service there after I had already gone on to sea duty.

We are oceans apart today and I've been reflecting on how two American men of the same generation, who have shared similar military responsibilities, could have such divergent perspectives.

Sam, you must recall filling out the questionnaire for the Coast Guard recruiter. I had just turned 17 when I had to sign, under penalty of perjury, a document stating that I had never been a member of a "subversive" organization. The list had more than 200 entries.

I remember, too, the question about sexual tendencies. I was an adventurous kid and, at 17, already had had romantic and sexual experiences with young people of both genders. But I knew full well I would not be allowed to serve -- to fulfill my military obligation, which was a requirement in those days -- if I owned up to any gay tendencies. In any event, I couldn't even characterize my own sexuality, since it was -- and still is -- unfolding.

I knew my sexual expressiveness would not interfere with my Coast Guard responsibilities: the protection of life and property at sea. But if I wished to serve, I had to lie. Wanting equality of opportunity, I practiced the deception you still praise today. What a morally destructive thing to ask of a teen-ager! You are not leading us along a path of honor.

Sam, I can't know what your personal experience in the military was, but in all my time in the Coast Guard -- in the three-tiered bunks which filled our sleeping quarters over the fuel tanks on the cutter "Androscoggin"; in the shower rooms we both used at Cape May; in the small sleeping quarters above the radio shack where I translated Morse code at a station on the Florida coast -- never once was I importuned by another Coast Guardsman. And I importuned no one myself.

It's been over three decades since my honorable discharge, yet I vividly recall this: I would rather have been honest and open. Those were formative years, and I knew then in the deepest recesses of my heart that this concealment, forced on me by the government -- and by young men like yourself? -- was the real perversion.

4 My sexuality was not the problem. The lying was.

From the military -- much as from my church and my small-town peers -- came a ceaseless drumbeat reinforcing the idea that there were parts of me that others believed to be "subversive." Being a "queer" was akin to being a Commie. In fact, back then lots of people thought we were all of a kind -- "Scratch a queer, find a Red." The military's message was: Live a lie, guy, and we'll all be better off.

My own contract with this lie stipulated that if I were to win acceptance, recognition, advancement and honor, then I must hide.

Yes, Sam, the legal construct and the cultural mindset which men like yourself helped embroider -- then and now -- made me a man less whole, less honest.

It is a stupendous irony that so-called "family values" lies at the heart of this historic national debate -- not just a debate about gender issues in the military but in the entire American commonwealth. For it is precisely the values of family -- a safe and warm harbor from life's vicissitudes -- that are at the heart of what most men and women seek.

Webster's defines "family" as "a group of persons sharing a common dwelling and table" or volunteers united in a common enterprise. Surely these qualities characterize our time in the Coast Guard. But the definition says nothing about gays being excluded from the family, the dwelling, the table, the enterprise.

The United States Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus: Always Prepared. Lawmakers wiser than yourself, Senator Nunn, would seize on that preparedness to allow the Coast Guard to pilot the other services through these treacherous shoals. But you, sir, seem to prefer it to shout out "Semper Praevaricans" -- always lying. What a sham, what a crooked path.

It's not a gay lie. It's a straight deception.

McCarthy Coyle, a former Coast Guard radio operator, writes from Missoula, Montana.

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