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Retired Coast Guard officer Bill Shipley served and lived for decades in the closet before coming out--then he found out his son was gay.

Four times during his career as a chief petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, Bill Shipley signed the discharge papers of recruits who had come out to him. "I'd close the door to my office and tell them that I wasn't judging them but that it was the policy of the military and I couldn't do anything about it," remembers Shipley, who retired in 1999. "Then I'd sign the papers and they would leave."

He didn't tell them that he was also gay. Until about three years ago, that was a secret he kept from almost everyone in his life. But when he learned last year through other family members that his youngest son, Adam, then 17, was gay and struggling with how to come out to his father, Shipley would turn the tables and come out to his son.

"I was the one person he was most afraid would find out he was gay," said Shipley, 47, during a recent telephone interview from his home in Sanford, N.C. When he came out, "Adam was totally shocked. He thought I was joking."

Shipley enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1978, around the same time he met his ex-wife. The two were married for 22 years and had five children together. Back then, he often thought about coming out, but the service was a good career, and he had a family to support. "I didn't want to dodge my responsibilities," he says. No one ever suspected he was gay.

Since coming out Shipley has received a lot of support from friends and former colleagues in the Coast Guard, which he believes may be the branch of the military most willing to formally accept openly gay service members.

"The Coast Guard tends to do things first," he says. "It was the first branch of the military that allowed women to serve, and I think they are ready to do the same for gays. If given the green light, they would do it in a minute."

Today, Shipley lives with two of his kids, Adam and Amanda (who are twins), and his partner, Christian Callaway.

At one time the younger Shipley was planning to follow his father into the military--"I was in ROTC; I thought I would be just like him"--but since their heart-to-heart chat he's changed course and is now attending cosmetology school. "I realized I didn't need to enlist--that I could be whatever I want to be," he explains.

If Adam had any doubts about being gay in the military, his father is evidence that it can be done. "If I had been able to serve openly," says Bill Shipley, "I truly believe I would have been as effective a leader as I was, if not more so. Plus, I would have been happier, and happier leaders are better leaders."

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