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I don't talk about my life. I don't put pictures of my husband on my desk. I just leave them at home.

Fort Drum soldier talks about what it's like to be gay in the military

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Just after the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, we ran a story gathering a variety of Fort Drum soldiers' reactions to the policy change.

Some were comfortable serving with openly gay colleagues; others were not. But there was one group that was noticeably absent from that conversation: gay soldiers themselves. After the story ran, one soldier got in touch with reporter Joanna Richards and wanted to share his story.

He said because of the continuing stigma against gays in the military, he wanted to go unnamed. Joanna met with the soldier, who we'll call Ryan, and his partner, who we'll call Billy, in a diner near Fort Drum.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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The repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” hasn't necessarily made it easy to be gay in the military. Same sex marriages still aren't recognized as legitimate by the federal government, so soldiers still face hurdles regarding the rights of their partners to know if they're injured or killed, for example. And despite training meant to make the military more tolerant of gays, a stigma still exists.

But now that military personnel can't be kicked out because of their sexuality, they are perhaps a little more willing to talk about what their experiences have been, under the “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy – and after it.

Ryan has had it both easy and hard, at times. He lived with a roommate who was seriously homophobic for a year and a half:

"He broke my nose and I broke his rib in a nice little hallway fight we had over the issue, and leave it at that."

On the other hand, most of Ryan's superiors and coworkers have known of his sexual orientation for some time, he says.

"They just don't talk about it. And it's – even before the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', it was very widely known, so they kind of just leave it alone. I think they mostly leave it alone out of respect, but also out of professionalism. You know, I don't talk about my life, I don't point my life out to everyone else, I don't make a big scene about it, you know. I don't put pictures of my husband on my desk. I just leave them at home, you know."

Well, there was one time Ryan made a scene. It was in Iraq, where he's served two deployments. He was in a van, doing some work – he works with communications technology. There were some other soldiers standing outside.

"I could hear them talking about me. And I won't really go into detail what they were talking about, but it wasn't very pleasant for me to hear about. So I finally sat there, and after breaking the second circuit breaker I was trying to install, I decided that I should probably settle this once and for all, so I just walked outside and screamed, 'Fall in!' And I, I just told them. I was like, ‘Look, if you have a problem with my life, come and tell me. And if you want’ – I told them, ‘If you want to criticize my life, you know, I can start with yours.’”

So Ryan had gone against his own best judgment, his own usual practice. In front of 57 soldiers, he had rocked the boat. He had rocked it hard. Amazingly, though, the reception was pretty muted.

“It was a moment that truly redefined the way I looked at how people saw my situation. You know, even though they, to me it seemed like they'd been oblivious to it, they had realistically been understanding.” 

Still, there were challenges. One soldier made it his work to get Ryan kicked out, although his efforts didn't pan out. Another problem was simply staying in touch with his partner, Billy. Ryan knew using the typical Army Internet connections while he was deployed could get him in trouble – messages could easily be monitored. So to stay in touch safely, he set up a secure link.

Ryan and Billy are both in their early 20s. Billy, a French Canadian, lives in Montreal, and Ryan lives at Fort Drum. The two men are in some ways opposites – Ryan is short and Billy is tall. Ryan is a Republican, while Billy is a liberal. Ryan speaks slowly and quietly, while Billy speaks quickly and laughs easily. But despite their differences, the distance and their youth, the two have been together almost 4 years. This summer, they exchanged rings and now consider themselves married, although they have yet to legally marry in Canada or New York, something they plan to do eventually. 

They both agree Ryan's military service under “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” has posed some serious challenges. Ryan suffers from the characteristic injuries sustained by soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his hearing in one ear when an improvised explosive device detonated near him in Iraq. Billy says that was a tough time for the two of them.

“The most difficult thing too, is, for example, like in Iraq, and if he dies, they don't call me,” Billy said. “They call his mom, and if his mom don't want to tell me, I can be a month without knowing that my husband is dead, or is injured. You know, he was in Germany, injured, and I never knew.” 

Billy says it mystifies him, that soldiers would fight for liberty overseas, when they lack it at home in the United States:

“And as I said, it's not all the benefits that I seek for, it's just like the normal things – if something happens, I want to know. And in Canada, we have all those things. Even in the Army, like, they recognize gay marriage, since the federal vote to stop the discrimination, 'cause it's – you know, everybody's human. And everybody deserves the same.” 

After surviving four years together, through a deployment and Ryan's injuries and the barriers of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” the two men want to build a life together – they want to adopt children some day. But they don't feel confident they can do that while Ryan is still in the military.

The repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” means Ryan no longer fears being kicked out – but it doesn't go far enough to keep him in the Army after his current enlistment is up in 2013.

 

 

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