Family life during wartime

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is keeping America’s gay soldiers in the closet as they fight overseas—but what is it doing to the loved ones they’ve left behind?

BY Michael Joseph Gross

April 15 2003 12:00 AM ET

In the field,
military personnel have no assurance of safe havens in
which to discuss the difficulties of being separated from
civilian partners. Gay service members cannot be
assured of discretion when they confide in military
chaplains, and a soldier’s disclosure of sexual
orientation to a mental health professional is not protected
by physician-patient privilege.

The daily mail
call is the only sure lifeline of support for soldiers
stationed abroad, but gay and lesbian service members face
considerable epistolary anxieties. Since letters and
E-mail messages are subject to interception by
censors, gay soldiers and their partners must use cunning
to encode their messages of love for one another.

Adam says he and
John communicate in writing, not by phone, “because
you’re able to make sure that [an E-mail or a letter]
says what you want to say but doesn’t say
things that you can’t say. In an E-mail you can
correct for the spontaneity of what you might say in a phone
conversation.”

After Adam writes
an E-mail to John, he goes back through and reads it to
“see what I need to change to make it pass muster if
somebody in the military were to intercept it.”
And when he gets E-mail from John, he says, “I
just have to be able to read between the lines,
what’s not being said, and what he must be
thinking and also wanting to say, even if it’s
not there in writing. I try to put each of his E-mails in
the context of our relationship.”

For example, he
says he can’t close his letters with the word Love
although he admits, “I didn’t have to go
through the process of writing it to know that I
couldn’t say that.” Even innocuous reports of
his social life are challenging, because most of his
friends are gay, he says. “When I write about
our friends and what I’ve done with them, I
have to make it pass the test of, Could this be the kind of
interaction that one of John’s buddies at home
would be having with a group of straight male
friends?” Adam says. “There aren’t many
references to women in my E-mails, so I can’t
accurately describe what I did on a weekend out
without thinking about whether it implies that I’m
gay.”

Other civilian
partners employ more byzantine techniques for
communicating. Paul has enlisted a female friend to
handwrite his letters to Ken and send pictures of
herself, posing as his girlfriend—so that if
military censors intercept these letters, they will think
Ken is straight. In each letter they send a snapshot
of the woman with Paul, whom she identifies as her
brother.

When asked how it
feels to be forced to camouflage his expressions of
love in a woman’s hand, Paul counters with a question
of his own: “Remember what happened to that kid
at Fort Campbell?” he asks, referring to the
1999 antigay murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell in Kentucky.
“That’s what Ken’s deathly afraid
of. That’s why we go to the measures we go
to—because he’s afraid of getting beat up. He
says his unit is highly homophobic. They are talking
trash all the time. He has to play the game. And he
does.”

It’s a
prudent concern. So far the military has issued no stop-loss
orders (which prevent service members from separating from
the armed forces under certain conditions) that would
suspend discharges based on “don’t ask,
don’t tell.” If a deployed soldier is
discovered to be gay, discharge for homosexual conduct
would require investigation and would likely be a low
priority during combat. As a result, gay service members
whose sexual identity is revealed could be placed at risk of
abuse or violence at the hands of their fellow
soldiers.

Paul, a
registered Republican who describes himself as “very
patriotic,” says that although he fears for his
partner’s safety and he feels lonely without
him, he is proud that Ken is fighting for his country. And
the codes and veiled language that shield their love
from public sight still allow for some small
experiences of emotional connection. “I got my first
letter from him yesterday. I sat in the middle of the road
right by the mailbox, crying, and read it
twice,” he says. His voice is deep, and his
speech, with a thick Southern accent, comes slowly.
“I have to say, I am not a queen,” he
says. “But I do cry when I have to.”

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