The Price Our Nation Pays for Exclusion
As the nation prepares to celebrate Memorial Day, mainstream news coverage will pay tribute by featuring a wide array of veterans. While there is greater diversity among the servicemembers highlighted, the stories of LGBTQ Americans who served their country are often overlooked and even ignored.
This feeling of exclusion is something LGBTQ veterans in the US know all too well. Until Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) was repealed in 2010, LGBTQ people were forced to serve in silence or risk being dishonorably discharged from the military regardless of their contributions and sacrifices to keep our nation safe.
CAMP Rehoboth chose to highlight servicemembers with ties to Rehoboth in this issue and I was honored to have the opportunity to interview three of them: Gary Espina, Justin Terry-Smith, and Bonnie Quesenberry. While 800 words is hardly sufficient space to do them justice, my hope is that readers will better understand how important military service was to each of them and what each of us can do to make them feel valued and welcomed.
Justin, a 41-year-old Black gay man living in Severn, Maryland, was working three jobs to get by and joined the US Army for a better life. He loved his job and was good at it. Justin’s outgoing and energetic personality may be the reason he was able to quickly bond with other gay men who were part of “a secret society” to stay below the radar, so to speak.
When he was told his next assignment would be in the Middle East, Justin panicked. Not only was being openly gay not compatible with military service, but it could also cost Justin his life if he were to be captured by the enemy. Because DADT prevented him from saying why, Justin was forced to find a way to end his enlistment without receiving a dishonorable discharge.
After becoming a civilian, Justin experienced a newfound freedom of not caring what people thought of his sexuality, although he missed the camaraderie and structure provided by the strict adherence to military protocol. “It was a missed opportunity to grow, but now, looking back, I would not have met my husband and had two kids.”
Bonnie enlisted in the Navy in 1967—at the age of 18—for some of the same reasons Justin did. She longed to attend college, but her parents lacked the necessary resources. Also, Bonnie’s mother had other plans for her future, which was for her to get married and begin working at Westinghouse near her home in Baltimore. Bonnie knew she did not want to get married (a year later she knew why) and saw military service as a way to get an education through the G.I. Bill.
Like Justin, Bonnie developed bonds with other women but knew she risked discharge if her sexuality became known to her superiors. Bonnie and her friends were often followed by members of the Naval Investigative Service. When questioned about their sexual orientation, “we learned to lie and it was awful.” No longer willing to hide who she truly was, Bonnie was able to secure an honorable discharge at end of her three-year enlistment.
Looking back, Bonnie told me that the service was good for her because the structure kept her focused and allowed her to become successful in her role. We will never know what impact Bonnie could have had remaining in the Navy. On a positive note, leaving the Navy allowed her to meet and marry the love of her life, Fay Jacobs.
After graduating with a political science degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1987, Gary Espinas joined the Army as a Second Lieutenant and knew that being gay would mean having to hide who he was. But serving in the Army was always his dream so it was a risk he was willing to take.
During DADT, Gary was investigated when someone in the government asked him if he was gay and he answered truthfully. “Somehow I survived, and the Army did not separate me,” but he never found out why. Gary was a rare and lucky survivor since over 13,000 LGBTQ servicemembers were discharged under DADT.
In fact, Gary served 26 years and retired at the rank of Colonel after a distinguished career.
Despite the progress with the integration of LGBTQ people, the military can do better. Critical thinking is a priority, so creating a diverse service with those who can think out of the box will result in new ideas and better solutions.
Communities can also support LGBTQ servicemembers and veterans and help them feel welcome.
Both Gary and Bonnie said we need to have a better understanding as a society to recognize and appreciate the kind of sacrifice and commitment LGBTQ people are making to serve their country. We can show interest in their service and their experiences.
Justin hopes that people will be more mindful when engaging with LGBTQ veterans happen to be Black so they may focus more on their role and why serving was so important to them.
This is something Gary experienced the last time he wore his uniform while attending an LGBTQ Pride event at the White House. When President Obama shook his hand and thanked him for his service, Gary said “it was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I was glad I could finally wear the uniform as an out active-duty soldier.” ▼
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.