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
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."
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.
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."
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."