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Serving under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

I drew on some incredibly personal feelings while writing A Marine Awakening, though this story doesn’t reflect my experience much, beyond the first few pages and a bit in the middle. Ultimately it is a fantasy of what I wish could have happened, to some extent.

Today I thought to read my coming out letter which allowed me to be discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, before I got into real trouble and lost the chance for an honorable discharge. As I read it, I realize how many of the little events built up until I couldn’t take one more day in the homophobic environment I lived in.

What this letter doesn’t say is that I truly feared for my personal safety. I never fully relaxed, not even as I slept. Who’s to say I could trust the person on duty who had keys to every room? I was in the Marine Corps and couldn’t trust anyone around me because of a bigoted policy.

Thankfully, my best friend Sarah never told me about the rape threats she overheard until last year or it would have been worse. I used her real intervention in the book, but in real life I wasn’t there, and Sarah and I weren’t even friends yet. For the story I felt it was crucial for Cam’s development to face the bigots in a way I never did. There is no physical violence in A Marine Awakening. There is an exchange between characters which use a few slurs (faggot and dyke) but it is brief and the problem is taken care of. I don’t believe it requires a trigger warning though.

In any case… I thought I would share the letter that resulted in my discharge 20 days later. I was discharged quicker than normal, which was also part of their homophobia I learned later, and resulted in my losing my veterans benefits until I got them back by filing for disability 5 years ago.

The military, and the Marine Corps, can be an amazing experience. It can also be harrowing. And for many people, it is both. It’s more complicated than we can ever describe because we can’t understand it ourselves much of the time. A Marine Awakening is in many ways what I feel the Marine Corps could be if we truly allowed and expected people to be their very best instead of entrenching bigotry through policy.

The trans ban is just another form of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It weakens the entire military and distracts from the mission. If someone wants to, and is capable, of serving, they should be allowed to. And not while hiding the core of who they are. It wasn’t the homophobia that broke me, it was having to hide it, to have no way to fight back once I hit the fleet. I never had a chance to succeed. All this trans ban is putting people in the same position as before. Just let them serve.

I didn’t realize I had a book to write here! So, I’ll leave you with my coming out letter. It was carefully crafted by lawyers using my statements so I received the homosexual admission discharge rather than the homosexual admission discharge.


29 March 2000

LtCol. Shaw


29 Palms, CA 92278

Dear LtCol. Shaw:

1. I am writing this letter to you because I have finally reached my breaking point. I have been under a lot of pressure for the past year and a half trying to keep my sexual orientation a secret. I can no longer live a lie. I must tell you that I am a lesbian. I don’t look straight, I don’t act straight, and I am concerned that it would only be a matter of time before I am investigated for being who I am.

2. About two months ago I went to speak to the chaplain for an hour because I was so upset by the anti-gay climate I am forced to work in. The people I work with are very homophobic. I hear the word “fag,” “buttpacker,” “buttplate,” and other degrading anti-gay comments constantly throughout the day. I also am forced to stay silent while my coworkers talk about how they hate gays and that if their kids end up gay they’ll disown them and kick them out. I know I can’t speak up because if I spoke up and told my coworkers how wrong they were, the rumors about me would get a millions times worse. But it’s very hard to listen to those comments and not let it affect me. I’ve tried. Every day I try. It’s not fair that because of the Marine Corps’ “Homosexual Conduct Policy” I have waived all of my first amendment rights while my co-workers can speak so hatefully.

3. Most people I work with assume I’m a lesbian. When I was at medical one of the doctors asked me why I had such short hair. I told him I like it that way. He then told me that a lot of people talk about me and about my sexual orientation. He said that most people think that I’m gay.

4. I don’t associate much with the other people in my squadron so they end up making things up about me. I have one close friend who has told me that people ask him all the time if I’m straight or gay. He doesn’t answer their questions, but it is clear that everyone I work with speculates about my sexual orientation.

5. Recently, there was an incident where I was walking to my car and I heard someone say, “get a haircut marine.” I assumed that they were talking to me because I then heard them call me “he/she” as I opened my trunk. Following that comment someone said “ma’am” in my direction. But by the time I got back to the barracks I couldn’t tell who made those comments. These comments, and others like them, make me distrustful of most of the Marines in my barracks.

6. It became clear to me that I needed to tell you that I am a lesbian when Capt. Campbell gave us our training on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The first statement Capt. Campbell made after reading the policy to us was that homosexuality is incompatible with Marine Corps’ core values. If that is the way the Marine Corps feels, I can’t survive under this policy. Particularly when after the training there were a lot of anti-gay jokes by the guys.

7. There were also anti-gay jokes and teasing about the Department of the Army Inspector General’s harassment survey. The day before the survey we were to send a person on a working party to set up the room where it was going to be held. People made jokes about needing to put up pink streamers or something since we didn’t know what the set up was supposed to be. When the time came to send someone, I was chosen to go since I wasn’t busy. I actually made a joke about having to go put up streamers. I felt bad since I was playing along with their game but I didn’t feel like I could control it. Most of the time I feel like if I don’t play along with the jokes and comments, I will become even more of a target then I already am.

8. I am forced to remain silent while all of the comments and jokes I hear at work contribute to the overall difficulty I have living a lie. I try my best to be brave and live my life as I am. It’s hard, too hard. I will no longer deny to anyone that I am a lesbian and that I want to have honest relationships with women without having to hide or live in fear.

9. Although my coworkers are already discussing my perceived sexual orientation, I request that you keep this information as confidential as possible. I am very concerned about what might happen to me if their suspicions are confirmed. Thank you.

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