As I was posting photos of my long ago (1955-1956) Navy service aboard the Ti—as the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga was known to those who served aboard her—to my “Once Upon a Life—Whitehat Days” board on www.pinterest/doriengrey, I thought with a combination of awe, anger, frustration, pride, and sorrow of how far our society has come in regards to our reactions to being gay in America. And I cannot think of that subject without thinking of one of my shipmates, North. (We weren't big on first names in the Navy. I was “Margason,” he was “North.”) We both worked in the commissary department, charged with feeding the ship's 3,000-plus crew members—all men; women were not allowed to serve on warships.
I was a 22-year-old gay man with any 22-year-old's active libido. Yet, unlike my shipmates who were free to exercise theirs every time we pulled into port, and usually brag about it later, I dared not act upon mine for fear of having my homosexuality discovered and being kicked out of the military in disgrace.
I knew North was gay from the moment I saw him. Everyone new North was gay, as I'm sure most knew I was gay, but as long as you remained under the radar, as it were, other than the occasional snide comment, nothing was said. Everyone simply accepted North, and because he was a genuinely sweet kid, everyone liked him. The ship's personnel officer was also obviously gay; an unpleasant little weasel of a man with a small pencil-thin mustache and the perpetual glint of a predator in his eye.
And one morning, while we were at sea, North did not show up for work. No one knew where he was or what had happened to him. He was simply gone. Rumors swept through the commissary department and beyond. Was he hiding somewhere aboard? If so, why? Had he fallen overboard? Or jumped? The thing was he was gone without a trace.
Several days later, we pulled into Naples, and...there was North! He came aboard to pack up his things, and the mystery of his disappearance was solved. To this day, I can feel the fury I felt then.
He had been summoned to the Personnel office and told that a report had been received that a sailor in Norfolk had “confessed” to being a homosexual, and had given North's name as someone he had had sex with. The personnel officer assured North they had no intention of doing anything against him, but merely needed his signature on a piece of paper verifying the Norfolk sailor's story. And North...dear, sweet, innocent North...signed the paper! He was flown off the ship in the middle of the Mediterranean within an hour, lest he contaminate the rest of the crew.
North's story was not unique. There were thousands of stories like his. Thousands of honest, decent, good people who had volunteered to serve and possibly give their lives for their country. Treated with contempt, stripped of dignity, shamed and humiliated before their friends and families. How could we do this to our own people? It was incomprehensible to me then. It is incomprehensible to me now.
I knew...as every gay man and woman who ever served in our country's military knew...not only how wrong our government's attitudes and policies were, but that it was inevitable that they would—they had to—change. We were all Cassandras, seeing the future but not being believed.
Anyone who did not go through what I and millions of others like me did have no real way of comprehending what it feels like to realize that society finally recognizes that Cassandra was right.
I see photos, now, of service men and women in uniform openly embracing and I cannot find the words to adequately describe my reaction, other than, possibly “vindication.”
But mostly, I think of North.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1).