I Was Wrong About Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Getting Fired, Giving Some Interviews, Taking Action
Before Occupy and all its myriad (and at times catastrophic) effects on my life, I was a one-trick pony of sorts. My focus in activism was a narrow one, born from personal experience and thrust onto the national stage.
In 2004, after one tour in Iraq and staring another one in the face, I made a decision to come out of the closet. I marched into my Commanding Officer’s office and delivered a carefully prepared statement (already vetted by a lawyer) to his desk declaring: “I will return to serve in Iraq but I will do so as an openly gay soldier.” Surprise (not really)! Ian is gay.
Predictably, I did not return to Iraq. I got drummed under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and since my job was a mission-critical position (Arabic translator) it instantly became news.
After making the rounds in the Advocate, Instinct Magazine, Anderson Cooper and others, I got tired of refuting John McCain’s asinine comments about the dangers of perverts in the Armed Forces and retired from activism for a few years in order to do things like be 22, do massive amounts of drugs, and catch HIV. Let’s admit it. Talking to reporters is boring and the people who were excited to get my story in the public eye felt that the end-all and be-all of activism was press statements. Spending thousands on cocaine seemed a lot more fun.
Finally, in my late 20s, a certain troublemaker named Dan Choi popped up and I snapped out of my self-obsessed desire to destroy myself and realized that activism didn’t necessarily end at giving interviews to Wolf Blitzer. It could be about chaining yourself to things. It could be getting arrested! It could be exciting.
So then this happened:
While that landmark legislation was the result of years of hard work on the part of legislators, advocates, and other pissed off people, I like to think that my participation in that protest brought enough focus on the issue that it was thrust into the limelight and acted on quickly. For a couple years, I have been proud of the fact that the direct action that put my face in Newsweek might have changed the country for the better.
Here’s the thing: I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.
I. Hate. Being. Wrong.
Before you write me off as crazy, hear me out.
It’s not getting arrested for a cause that I object to. Since I was very young my elders had impressed upon me that if I felt strongly enough about something, I should be willing to go to jail in order to bring about the change I wanted to see. That’s not the problem.
The problem also isn’t that LGBs are now free to join the military and be honest about who they are. That’s great! Playing the “pronoun” game and fearing getting fired on the basis of your sexual orientation is stressful and tiresome. I see this picture:
… and it pleases me! When I came home from Iraq, my mother and a boy I was dating were waiting for me when I got off the plane. I hugged my mom and awkwardly shook the hand of my “friend.” If I had been able to do what the gents above could do… that would be awesome!
So what’s the problem?
The problem isn’t that gay soldiers are now free to be as gay as they want in the military. The problem is that gay soldiers are now joining the military without hesitation. I helped to make that happen. I encouraged people to support the military industrial complex, an industry so large and so profitable that wars are seemingly now fought in order to award high-yield contracts to weapons manufacturers and private security operations like Blackwater.
I. Was. Wrong.
Who Did I Help?
When I handcuffed myself to that fence, it seemed clear who I was helping. LGBs in the military! Cut and dry! Freedom to serve their country! Sounds great, right? What I didn’t consider was who I was harming. I had no thought that the cause I was supporting was the wrong one.
Everyone knows that the military is a huge resource drain. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually supporting this vast war machine which gets used for corrupt and imperialistic purposes (any surprise we have the most expensive military… and are also the richest country on Earth? Hmmmm…). The most recent and glaring example may be the war in Iraq, which was started on false pretenses and seemed to benefit no-one other than defense contractors and the politicians who hired them. You know. The war I was in.
I went to Iraq thinking I was going to be helping people form a better democracy. Instead, in the aftermath of our military action and the instability the invasion brought to Iraq, thousands were killed in a violent insurgency and a war that seemed to last forever suddenly became very murky. After a while, the only people who really understood why they were there were the military contractors (to make a buck), and I understood that what I did there didn’t help many people.
Ask the LGBT population of Iraq. Since our military action and the instability it brought, openly gay Iraqis have been slain in droves.
You can imagine how that made me feel. I still never know how I forgot how upset this made me when I leaped at the chance to chain myself to the fence.
Goodbye, Friend. Stay Safe. Stay Sane.
Since I left the military I have struggled with mental issues. A classic sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I have terrible nightmares, am frightened by loud noises, and am plagued with panic attacks when reliving the details of my time in Iraq. Those profound months that I spent invading a foreign country had affected me in ways that it took me years to understand.
Last fall a friend bought me a US Army pin. I immediately affixed it to my coat and wore it for months.
Some have mistaken my purpose for wearing it, and I didn’t understand myself at the time. The circles I run in don’t exactly love the military. I’m surrounded by people who have been pressured to join because it was the only way they could get college money (ha, that was totally me), people of color who have seen their friends and family members enlist only to be sent to go kill other people of color, peaceniks, and people with the empathy to realize there is no such thing as “the Enemy.” People have taken my wearing of the pin to symbolize that I supported the Army, which baffled me. When I put it on, I didn’t feel proud. I felt regret, something I couldn’t admit to myself at the time.
You see, I killed people while I was in Iraq. Well. I’m almost certain I did. I fired an artillery piece. It blew up a building. If there were people in that building, I killed them. Me.
Why did I do that? I won’t go into it. You’re not my therapist. But when people see me wearing that pin, they don’t realize it’s not me proudly displaying my service: I’m admitting to something. I’m sort of like Hestor Prynn in that this pin is my scarlet letter and I’m admitting the sin of murder. Of imperialism. I’m admitting a mistake.
A friend of mine just joined the Army, active duty. He is a fey young thing, a little foolish but a good person. He is a member of the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and a self-identified gay man. Because of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he can consider signing away his life (figuratively, I certainly hope not literally) for four years without hesitation due to a discriminatory policy.
Will he have his own scarlet letter someday?
Getting Pepper Sprayed Is Better Than Supporting Imperialism. Trust Me On That.
In the end I don’t think that what I did on November 15th, 2010 was an act of prime evil. I know now that I look back and say “oops.” I know that I feel like I have honed my empathy and my political understanding to the point where I think more carefully about what I’m going to have to bear on my conscience later on.
Honestly, this is less about me, and less about my friend, and more about the fact that war, frankly, is wrong. War is waged so that the privileged elite can give the impoverished masses guns and then send them to kill other poor people because they’re pissed off at the privileged elite over there.
The reason I’m wrong isn’t because gay people shouldn’t join the Army. It’s because no-one should join the Army. No-one should go kill people so that Blackwater can line its pockets.
Will we ever exist without war? I… well, probably not in my lifetime. It’s something to work toward. We need to start thinking, as a society and as a human race, not about how to kill each other better or more fairly but how to prevent each other from killing each other at all.
One year to the day after my arrest in Washington DC, I marched with Occupy Seattle. I don’t even remember what the march was about, but we took to the streets and the police responded by pepper spraying us. One of the people hit that day was Dorli Rainey, the 84-year old woman whose face then circled the globe as evidence of police brutality.
I was pepper sprayed that day too. I am far more proud of that.