In honor of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, I thought I’d tell you about a time in February 2012 when I was walking towards my vehicle in the frigid cold of winter in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. A Marine with a copy of the Military Times pushed the cover into my face. It depicted a male Marine’s homecoming kiss with his partner. “See!” he said, “Hawaii Marines are fags!”
I was a Marine stationed in Hawaii, attached to CLB-4, a unit based out of Okinawa, Japan. Even though my colleague was making a joke, my stomach dropped because throughout my enlistment and up until the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, I was forced to keep my sexuality buried deep in my heart for fear of being dishonorably discharged.
After seeing that image, I gained courage — enough courage at that moment to tell my brother in arms. I thought for certain I could disclose this to my battle buddy, and so I tried. In the front of a 7-ton military vehicle, I looked to my driver, someone I’d grown very close to, and said, “Marco, I think I’m gay.” He said, “What do you mean? Like you look at gay porn or you’ve actually fucked a dude?” His disgusted tone said more than his words. “No Marco, I am gay. I like guys.” Silence ensued for the rest of the mission. Our friendship was lost forever.
Deep into the closet I returned. For the duration of the deployment, through bombs and bullets, my biggest fear was that Marco would tell the rest of the guys. He didn’t, but losing him as a friend generated a feeling of sorrow deeper than losing someone to a bomb or bullet. He was alive, but I was dead to him.
After safely returning to Hawaii, I met the first man I’d ever love, and because I loved him, I felt it necessary to come out. We met as he was bartending in a gay bar in downtown Honolulu. My first words that would lead to some of the most beautiful times of my life were, “You’re fucking hot as hell.” The pick-up line worked, but the relationship was hard at first because my best friend in the Marines, Dustin, had no idea I was gay, and if you know anything about the Marine brotherhood, you know you can’t keep secrets for long.
Instead of telling Dustin that I was gay, I created conflict between us to keep my secret hidden. This didn’t sit well with him, and so one Saturday afternoon he called me. “I’m so sorry, man. I don’t know what I did wrong, but if I’ve been a shitty friend, I’m sorry, man. This is bullshit. I fucking love you, dude.”
“Dustin, Dustin, OK, man. It’s not that. It’s … uh … It’s … All right, can we meet at the pizza place in Chinatown? I have something to tell you.”
He agreed, and so we met. My heart was racing and my palms were sweating as I approached J.J. Dolan’s. Dustin was sitting at the bar, and as soon as he saw me, he wrapped me in his arms and began apologizing for a fight I had created.
“I’m sorry, man — I fucking love you, dude. I can be a better …”
“Dustin … Dustin … Stop, man. It’s not you. I’m gay.”
I’ll never forget Dustin’s look — staring diagonally down at the floor, back slightly arched, his lips mischievously curled at the side.
“But we’ve had threesomes together …”
“I know, man, but I don’t like you like that. You’re my brother.”
To which he replied in the most Marine-y way possible, “Well, if you haven’t tried to fuck me yet, I suppose you never will.”
And maybe this doesn’t seem like the correct response to many people, but this was his way of saying, I couldn’t care less — and that was more than enough for me. Dustin would become my biggest advocate, and I promise you, no one was going to fuck with me as long as he was around. The very notion of someone calling me a fag or ridiculing me in anyway is quite humorous considering Dustin’s size.
I let Dustin tell the rest of the guys, and their reactions were more curious than anything else.
“Do you take it up the butt?”
“Only if I douche properly.”
“So you like to suck cock?”
“Yeah, have you ever tried it?”
Any question they had was answered with brutal honesty, and maybe that would have been a bit too much for most people recently out of the closet, but I knew these guys. They were harmless — well, ruthless killers actually — but harmless to me. From my peers, not a single negative comment was made. They knew who I was. They knew that I was cunning, strong and most importantly, that I would die for them. Brotherhood transcends prejudice in all forms. Ask any Marine; black, white, gay, trans and you will see this to be true.
Soon the word spread. I was the first openly gay Marine in my battalion under the repeal, and I used this to create a platform that led to the recognition of lesbians and gays during Pride month — a month that was historically ignored by the Marines. Stephen Peters, the senior national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, shared a photo of my partner and me on Facebook. At the time, my partner was working for AMPA (the American Military Partner Association), an advocacy association for LGBT families in the military.
I then created a YouTube video that explained my coming-out story. The response to this video was absolutely inspiring. To this day, I still get messages from people who often say they came out as a result of watching it.
The support I received from my fellow Marines inspires me daily. They were the family I deserved. Their acceptance encouraged me to be as vociferous as possible, and I will always honor that. As we celebrate Veterans Day, I ask that you all take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation. Both of my best friends, Dustin and Daniel, were Bible-belt country boys who’d never met a gay person, and yet they embraced me with open arms.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a former mentor, and quite possibly the most inspiring Marine I’ve ever had the honor of serving with: David Brewer. He told me this shortly after inviting me to speak in front of the battalion about gay and lesbian acceptance:
“It’s one thing to be brave, which you are, but it’s another thing to be honest.”
Happy Veterans Day.