Gays in the Navy

[I wrote a comment on a FireDogLake piece about my experience with gays in the Navy and got the following reply:

This is another comment, rich in personal history, which would make a wonderful standalone diary at The Seminal. Please consider sharing your experience there — I think people have a hard time understanding the historical inanity of this debate: there have always been gays in the military and people have never cared more than right now, it seems.]

Back when I was in "A" School (School you take between Boot Camp and the fleet), I was joking around with a few buddies. "Yes sir, I knew that I shouldn't have pushed that button and blown up that city, but I just didn't care. I just couldn't summon up the emotional energy to really give a damn, so yeah, sorry, I pushed that button."

That, to me, summed up my attitude towards gays while I was in the Navy. I served as a Personnelman and got up to the rank of 3rd Class (PN3, equivalent to an Army Corporal) from May 1991 until January 2001. When I was overseas from November 1996 to November 1998, my ship had 400 people on it. So we all knew each other, some of course better than others, depending on how closely we worked together.

There was a fellow that I sorta, kinda had my suspicions about. He seemed to be a little awkward socially and we talked about fitting in with the group. He once complained that "I wish people would invite me to go out on liberty with them." We had to use a buddy system where when we hit liberty ports, we had to have at least one other person from the ship with us, which meant that sometimes a shipmate had to wait on the Quarterdeck until one or more other people wanted to go out on liberty and then the whole group could take off together. I cheerfully explained to him that no one was ever going to think of inviting him to be their liberty buddy, he had to wait on the Quarterdeck and invite himself to join a person or a group that was going off into town. I had to explain that being socially popular involved some measure of just jumping in and joining the group.

His chain of command decided to send him back to the States to learn some more stuff about how to do his job. We talked about how the Navy would pay for his TAD (Temporary Additional Duty) and we went through a pantomime about how he would take money from one purse, then from another purse, he'd add everything up and then he'd get paid for the whole thing upon completion of the whole evolution. Well, a few days after he'd taken off for the States, I heard that he'd gotten busted for being gay. I thought back about how we had related to each other and what I'd heard about him and thought "O-o-o-oh yeah-h-h! Yeah, that would explain why..." and various small things I hadn't noticed at the time occurred to me and now they made sense.

I didn't have any strong opinions either way about gays. To a sailor, a shipmate is more than just a mere co-worker. A shipmate is someone you live with as well as work with. You clean up your workspaces and berthings together, you perform fire drills together where get all suited up and you pretend to fight fires, you eat meals together where you just see an empty spot, sit down and start chattering with whoever's sitting there. But the off-duty habits of my shipmates just didn't concern me much. As I said in the first paragraph here, I just didn't care. It didn't make any big difference to me that one of my shipmates turned out to be gay. It made a big difference to the ship that we now had one less qualified sailor who had previously done a satisfactory job. Y'know, he may not have done a super-brilliant job, but he certainly wasn't known for doing a poor job and so much in the Navy just requires being steady, being reliable, getting jobs completed and reports filed on schedule and within parameters.

One time, on an earlier ship, we were about to leave on a voyage and a low-ranking sailor cleaned off a pipe down in the engine room. He came back a short while later and the pipe was covered with oil again. He recognized that this was not a good sign and reported that to his supervisor. Turned out the voyage had to be postponed for a day so that the pipe could be replaced. It had worn away so badly that it was now so thin that oil was just plain leaking through the pipe itself. If our sailor had not been observant and had not reported the problem..brr...I hate to think of what could have happened out there on the open sea. The point is, the ship was saved from a potential catastrophe by a shipmate who just plain did his job. He paid attention to detail. He did his job in a manner where he was aware and alert and that made all the difference in the world.

One time, I had a shipmate fill out an ID Card application with incorrect information. He thought he was being clever and was finding a way around a problem. We had to have a series of discussions, my supervisor was brought into it, the problem was fixed, the shipmate was scolded and we got on with our day, but that wasted an hour that wouldn't have been wasted if he had just done his job correctly the first time. Several years earlier, I applied for another job within the Navy. The fellow who was advising me on how to apply neglected to fill me in on all of the necessary details. I think maybe he considered it a learning experience for me, but the result was that my application was a mess and the Bureau of Naval Personnel had to get back to me several times and tell me that yet another piece of the application was missing.

In the military, attention to detail is very, very important. People need to know what they're doing, they need to keep their minds on their jobs. And y'know? We all need to get along with each other. The male sailors need to be aware of how they're dealing with the female sailors so that our language never crosses over from the "yellow" into the "red." White sailors have to be aware of how they're talking with black sailors so as to make sure that language never gets offensive. It's perfectly okay to suggest that an African-American sailor is doing a lousy job, but it's not okay to suggest he's doing a lousy job because he's African-American. We can joke around and have a good time, but we have to pay attention to our language.

Do we ask questions of our shipmates about their off-duty sexual habits? No, of course not. That kind of question could very easily be construed as a "red zone" sexual harassment-type of question. When we were in our home port and left the ship and went off into town, where we went and who we saw was our concern. I guess the really bottom-line concern of mine as a sailor was, "Is my shipmate doing a satisfactory job?" If he or she was doing their job and paying attention to detail and the instruction manuals were being followed, why is it going to concern me that he might be sleeping with another he or she with a she?

If I had been asked to make a list of my top ten concerns, the sexuality of my shipmates would either have not made the list at all, or I would have listed at least eight or nine concerns prior to that. As I said, I just didn't care.

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