In February 2002, 162 days after the attacks in New York and DC, 2,915 days into the discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and a little over two years after I came out as bisexual, I enlisted in the US Army.
I did so with a mix of familiar and naïve reasons: money for college, escaping poverty, belief in a certain story about America. I enlisted both because I believed in the idea of “service” and because I saw the benefits of it.
Though I don’t like to admit it when I’m talking to young people, the truth is that it changed my life. I grew up there, the way some people “find themselves” on college campuses. My first time with a man was in the army. I was able to pay for two undergraduate degrees and a masters of fine art using programs for service members and veterans. My experience as a queer soldier (and an anti-war punk) enlisted during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the material that grew into my first book, which won some awards and helped get me my dream job.
So why am I the type of veteran who tells young people not to join the military?
To start, enlistment in the army showed me what the army was. As they espoused the value of integrity, they asked me, for eight years, to lie about who I was. As they promised respect and comradery, I heard the military leaders around me talk about the violence they thought that LGBTQ+ soldiers deserved. Don’t get me wrong: there were good folks around me too, queer folks and allies and people who were somewhere in between. There were lovers. Chosen family. The full spectrum. Good people join, and many do so for good reasons. The military is a microcosm of the nation, both its decency and its ugliness.
It is also violent.
Not just personal violence either. It can be easy to forget that all militaries are tools of violence. During those first two decades of the millennium, Americans shared a rhetoric of patriotism and service that painted the American soldier as a Captain America figure, a shield defending what is right in the world. If we talked about death, we usually talked about “the sacrifice they made for us,” and not of the half-million dead from the “War on Terror.” For me, it was two close comrades, one lost to a roadside bomb and another to suicide. I’m not exceptional in this, though. These wars punched holes in countless families in the US, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in nations across the globe.
There is also the violence that isn’t talked about enough: intimate partner violence, military sexual assault, the biggest polluter on the planet, racism in the ranks, colonialism, rates of homelessness and mental health crises among veterans.
This September will mark 10 years since President Obama and a Democratic-led Congress dismantled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Just this April, President Biden completed the groundwork laid by his former boss and officially allowed open service—and potentially transition-related care—for transgender Americans. I’d love to celebrate this as a victory for our community, but I cannot do so without considering the last 20 years of war.
Just as there was a decade ago, there is a conversation taking place in our communities about whether and how we should celebrate access to dangerous institutions. How do we make sense of the fact that the ability to enlist may mean access to life-saving care for countless transgender Americans without also considering how this will be used as a recruiting tool that will send more transgender folks to war?
Sometime in the last few years, I decided to make the conscious effort to stop using the term “service” when discussing my time in the military. It is hard to retrain the tongue to find new language for how I spent the first decade of my adulthood. But it’s important that we speak clearly and honestly about what joining the military really means. This too is breaking the silence of “don’t tell.”
In doing so, I must acknowledge that the military changed my life—that it has changed, and will change, the lives of countless LGBTQ+ comrades. However, after 20 years of war, none of us should continue to pretend that doing this job is some sacrosanct role. It is a complicated decision that countless Americans will make based on morality, identity, body, desire, opportunity, and yes, violence. ▼
Anthony Moll is a queer writer and educator. Their debut memoir, Out of Step, won a 2019 Lambda Literary Award and the 2017 Non/Fiction Prize. It is now available from The Ohio State University Press. Follow them at @anthonywmoll.