“You will never work for the government again,” my commanding officer said, “If it were up to me you’d be in Leavenworth.” He handed me discharge documents that read “Unsuitability, Homosexuality.”
I’d enlisted in the U.S. Army after dropping out of high school and obtaining a G.E.D. with the help of a military recruiter. For an eighteen-year-old with little education and a newborn son to support it appeared my only hope for any type of future.
But this was 1980. Thirteen years before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell gays were not welcome in the hyper-masculine world of the military. The recruiter never asked about my sexuality. Why would he? I had a wife and son.
But my true nature would reveal itself once I arrived for processing prior to basic training. Suspicions that surfaced at a hotel the night before our physicals, and during final hours of freedom before becoming property of the U.S. Government.
“We’ve got a girl in one of the rooms. Everyone’s taking turns,” my assigned roommate said excitedly while rushing to take a shower.
I spied his naked body and wondered how I would avoid the gang-bang downstairs.
“C’mon,” he said, as I followed out the door.
There she was, and there they were, future heroes, lined up, laughing, behaving as men sometimes do; with no respect for the person they were using, without the decency to close the hotel room door.
I’d been in this type of situation before and it didn’t appeal to me.
My roommate missed my slipping away (or so I thought) and I wandered the streets of Oakland, returning when believing it was late enough, that he’d be asleep.
The next morning during breakfast a look of suspicion (or guilt) on his face as his silence told me otherwise.
The physicals were surreal. It wasn’t one-on-one, but rather a warehouse with hundreds of naked men single file being examined. “Bend over and spread your buttocks!” the voice echoed throughout the cavernous room, as rows of men did as they were instructed and a doctor examined each man’s orifice.
Considering my sexuality, this type of situation was very challenging. How could I not look?
A tap on the shoulder, “Come with me,” a man in uniform ordered. I was led into a small room and introduced to a military psychologist who asked, “Have you ever engaged in homosexual acts?”
Caught off guard and having never told anyone about my sexual activity I felt it was none of their business and answered no. Little did I know my answer would later be used against me when confronted with discharge orders.
He rephrased the question, “Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity with more than six males?”
What? I thought to myself, there’s a standard, more than six? I must be gay, well, according to the government.
With a look of disbelief at my denial the psychologist reluctantly okayed my enlistment.
That night I arrived at Fort Knox, Kentucky into a world I was totally unprepared.
It was dark when we pulled onto base, and just as portrayed in the movies drill sergeants began shouting the moment we stepped off the bus.
Basic training was rigorous and distracting; with a palpable sexual frustration building daily in the all-male environment.
Every night I would fall asleep to the sound of squeaky bunks and the sight of a dozen soldiers beating-off, relieving tension, their wool blankets becoming makeshift tents.
Sometimes someone would cough and another would yell “Get that dick out of your mouth!” as we all laughed. It became a popular phrase in our barracks.
I don’t remember how it started. I only remember being ordered to the commanding officer’s quarters and questioned. But this time in a drawn-out effeminate manner, “Are you a homo… sexual?”
“I have a wife and son,” I answered, which was suddenly becoming a convenient defense.
“You’ll move your belongings into charge quarters and sleep on a cot. Instead of joining your battalion you’ll report to the base psychologist mornings and work in my office during the day.”
Separated from my company and pulled from training, I would later learn this was for my safety as rumors circulated I was, in fact, gay, followed by hushed death threats from other barracks.
Despite facing discharge, the treatment I received from those I had trained with did not change. I was sometimes allowed to march with my company, not allowed into chow before finishing an obstacle course with them, and we even shared beers (during bonding with the drill sergeants).
For a lot of eighteen-year-olds this was a big deal. While the legal drinking age may have been 21, Uncle Sam believed if you were old enough to fight for your country you were old enough to have a beer. On base of course.
One morning while walking to the psychologist’s office my company jogged by, and to my surprise their cadence was directed at me. “Hey there sweet thang!” the drill sergeant sang, “Hey there sweet thang!” the platoon repeated.
His nickname for me was Sweet Thang. He started visiting me in the CQ in the middle of the night, and once tried to lure me to a secluded area in the woods, but still on base. Now, I was suspicious.
At first, I wondered if he wanted to kill me, but before I left Kentucky he asked for an address where I’d be in California. He wanted to see me once he got out of the military.
I was no longer training with my unit and had accepted my eventual discharge once they left for their first bivouac. The barracks fell silent and empty, but the quiet suddenly changed.
An officer from another company visited late one night, highly intoxicated and hell bent on letting me know just how disgusted he was with the possibility of my being gay. Had he been given the chance to kill me he probably would have.
“What’s your name soldier?” he yelled, waking me from sleep.
“Peters, sir!” I answered as he leered inches from my face.
“Why are you sleeping in the CQ soldier?” he shouted, closer, until our noses were practically touching; the smell of alcohol on his breath.
Before I could answer, two drill sergeants from other barracks entered the room and the three of them surrounded me. All I could feel were their hateful stares and angry gaze.
He asked again, this time very slowly, whispering,“Why are you sleeping in the CQ soldier?” I had a feeling he already knew.
“Do you know my rank soldier?”
I stood ground but my fear built, uncertain where the situation was leading, fueled by the lieutenant’s frustration with not getting the answer he wanted.
The shouting may have alerted night watch, as one of my company’s officers arrived in minutes, causing the three homophobes to stomp out abruptly.
A soldier from my battalion was assigned to stay with me nights in the CQ from that night until my separation.
The United States Army did not believe my marriage was legit. Officers inferred it was a sham, to collect government benefits (including additional pay allowance given to soldiers with children).
They threatened to send me to the brig for not being honest in Oakland during induction, but after eventually confiding to the psychologist (at Fort Knox) I was discharged Under Honorable Conditions.
At nineteen, I returned to a life I tried to improve (or escape), wondering if I’d ever work again.