I joined to serve.
Sometimes people roll their eyes when they hear that, like I’m saying it to score points, but I’m not. There are myriad reasons to join the military: Some people join to get money for school, which is completely legitimate; some people join because it’s employment, which is also legitimate. I already had a college degree and was making a living in New York City with my own business. In fact, I’d recently received my first Broadway credit as a production assistant, and I was living with a man to whom I’m now married. We have a dog. So, truly, I joined to serve. That was my only reason.
I’d always wanted to join the military. Since I pretended to be a secret agent in the woods when I was a kid until I joined at the age of 28, that feeling never went away. When I was 18 and in my first semester of college at SUNY Oneonta, I took the practice ASVAB, which is the military aptitude test that determines your eligibility for various military occupations. From that, I seriously thought about joining, but I had no support from my family and friends, who all cautioned me to stay in school.
So I did: I stayed in school and spent the next 10 years of my life just living my life — I started my own editing and videography business, I got a Broadway credit, I found Michael and we fell in love.
In 2014, though, I had a friend come back from Army Basic Training after joining the National Guard. I soon discovered that she was exactly the same person as when she’d left, but she had a whole new set of skills. This encounter, combined with the fact that I already felt like I’d accomplished some of my life goals, made me realize it was still something I needed to do. I talked to Michael, and a couple weeks later, I walked right into a recruiter’s office.
Joining the military as a gay man, I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had recently been repealed, but when you look at the military from the outside, you don’t know how it all works. I never seriously considered lying about being gay because lies spin out of control — I never wanted to be stuck in the position where I again pretend to be something I’m not. I had no plan; I just hoped the topic wouldn’t come up.
Of course, the topic absolutely came up.
Day two of basic training, we were all laying in our bunks and people start talking about their girlfriends. I was silently hoping they wouldn’t rope me into the conversation; I even pretended I was sleeping. No luck: The conversation made its way over to me and they asked if I had a girlfriend. I took a moment and then said, “I have a boyfriend.”
They paused for what felt like the longest second of my life. Then the general reaction was nothing more than, “Oh, that’s cool.” That was it! More surprising still, at the end of basic training, there were still people who didn’t know I was gay, which means the group I told on day two hadn’t even considered the information worth gossiping about.
Starting with that interaction, I came to find that the military, as a whole, was actually more socially progressive than society — I got more shit for being a New Yorker than I got for being gay. Sure, there were some guys who were uncomfortable, but I assumed that was a result of where they came from, and maybe never having met an openly gay person before. But the military challenges this kind of thinking because it’s a convergence of everyone — it’s the whole country mixed together.
As a result, the entire service is much more exposed to diversity. So maybe a new soldier who’d never been outside their small town or neighborhood could isolate themselves from diversity at home, but now, they’re mixed in with people from all over America who come from every background you can imagine. Soldiers from “melting pot” communities get shoved in together with soldiers from areas with little to no racial or cultural diversity, and most of those major issues are quickly pulled out of you. Because how can you work together, rely on each other and keep each other alive if you don’t like that person because of their color, religion or sexual orientation?
Now, it’s true that some of this attitude is forced. I joined in 2014, right after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and, of course, when the Supreme Court makes a decision, everyone has to abide by that. There was some strife, especially among the lifers and those guys from very conservative areas. But that’s not the majority. Many of those guys are gone now anyway, simply through attrition, and the new people coming in are more representative of our current society.
There’s always an influx of new soldiers — these guys are usually young and being gay isn’t a big deal to them, so the tide changed very quickly. In my experience, not only is the military changing from the top down — due to the Supreme Court and other leadership changes in the military — but it’s also changing from the bottom up.
That said, there are still challenges as soldiers continue to learn to adjust to the new normal, as I learned the second time I had to come out, at Advanced Individual Training (AIT).
Many of my peers from Basic Training were with me at AIT, and they, of course, knew I was gay. Instead of coming out to individuals, our conversations informed everyone around us of my orientation. Naturally, I would talk about my partner, so others would learn I was gay from hearing that. One of these was an NCO [non-commissioned officer] who was assigned as one of our leaders. After he found out I was gay, his attitude toward me changed completely.
It’s nothing I can prove, but the stark difference in his demeanor and tone after he found out made the remainder of our interactions cold and awkward. At the end of the course, despite the fact that I had the highest GPA, I wasn’t recognized for it. My instructors fought on my behalf, but it didn’t amount to anything and I left feeling slighted.
The third time I came out, I decided to do it on my terms. Done with training, I was transferred to my unit in New York, the storied 369th Sustainment Brigade, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Since most of the soldiers in my unit were from New York City and the surrounding area, I decided to start my first day during introductions by telling my section where I was from and that I lived with my partner, so there would be no room for that awkward moment. As expected, everyone was fine with it, and we started working together without issue.
This response echoed much of what I’d felt when I first came out to friends in college and found wide acceptance. In many ways, it was less complicated than coming out to my family, some of whom had a problem with it. Funnily enough, my dad, who I thought would be the hardest to tell, actually ended up being the easiest: He’s a regular, blue-collar guy from Central New York, and he’d taken me to lunch one day to talk about something. Right then and there, I decided I just had to do it, so, sitting in Quiznos, I said to him, “I have to tell you something.” He replied, “I think I know,” and I blurted out, “I’m gay.” From there he was just like, “Okay,” and started me asking me questions. It was a totally normal conversation.
The fourth time I came out in the military was while I was deployed to Kuwait, and once again I found unexpected acceptance. Normally, lower-enlisted soldiers don’t interact much, if at all, with the senior officers in the unit, but I had an unexpected conversation with our brigade commander. I’d kept a rubber engagement ring on my dog tags that I didn’t wear because it was a little too small. One day, I randomly decided to put it on because I missed wearing my ring. Literally a minute after doing so, the brigade commander came in and said, “Beckley, I didn’t know you were married.”
I nervously replied “Yes, Sir, I am.”
Now, he was this brusque, big guy from Western New York, kind of like my dad, so I was very nervous to say anything. He replied, “How is your spouse doing back at home?” and I, very hesitantly, said, “My husband is actually doing pretty well, Sir, thank you.”
He didn’t miss a beat or react at all, and we continued on with a 20-minute conversation about adoption. He was one of the few people in the military who asked about my spouse without assuming it was a woman. For many, that’s still a conversation adjustment, and it doesn’t generally bother me. But I have a great deal of respect for our commander, and even more so after that interaction.
The last time I had to come out was another one that completely caught me off guard. While deployed to Kuwait, I was sent to Basic Leaders Course, which is pretty much “sergeant’s academy.” It was in another area of Kuwait, and much like Basic Training, you’re crammed in with a lot of other guys. About a week and a half in, I was with a group who were having a very straight conversation, talking about their girlfriends and women they like — it was pretty dirty stuff.
In the course of this, they turned to me and asked if I had someone back home. When I replied, “Yes, I’m actually married to a man,” they all hesitated because of what they’d been talking about, fearing what my reaction would be. I broke the uncomfortable silence by making an even worse joke than the ones they’d been making. Everyone laughed, and we moved on.
Today, I’m a sergeant and back home in New York after three years in the Army National Guard, with a deployment under my belt. I’m with my husband and in the Broadway theater scene once again, where people are always amazed when I explain just how accepting the military is — it really is a new Army, and for the right reasons. Overall, it helped that I was always working hard and doing a good job. If I’d been a shitty soldier and gay, maybe it would’ve been held against me more. But I did my best, and despite some hurdles, I was recognized for it.
Sure, I’ll probably have to come out again when I’m deployed in a year, but I highly doubt it will be any different than any of the other times I told my fellow soldiers that I was gay.
— As told to Brian VanHooker