Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: "Our Time" by Josh Seefried

This month marks an important time in American history. Not only was it the 10-year anniversary of 9-11, a time we each remember all too vividly, but it is also a time of a great equalizer for the United States military. What am I talking about, you wonder: the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

A legislation passed in 1993, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" gave homosexuals the right to serve in the military--if they keep mum about it. A bogus law if I ever heard one. Sexual preference has no bearing on one's ability to protect and defend. Pure and simple.

Soldiers have suffered in silence for years, though, treated as if the disparate nature of sexuality and dedication isn't so disparate at all. Our Time: Breaking the Silence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (Penguin Press, October 2011), a new book of essays edited by Josh Seefried, finally gives those soldiers a voice. More than 45 active-duty LGBT soldiers share their first hand accounts in this powerful and gracious collection. Seefried explains why in his Introduction:
These soldiers are an example for service in the post-"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military. They are a reminder that respect and professionalism is already a part of our culture. What we need now is leadership. Gay service members must lead from the front openly and straight colleagues must help create an atmosphere of acceptance and respect. This is the message that the men and women who contributed to t his book are sending with their stories. It's now our time. (Our Time, 5)
It was enlightening as I began to read Our Time. I personally have a great deal of respect and am in full support of the LGBT community at large. But even so, I guess I never really understood exactly what people go through when they're unable to publicly recognize who they truly are. It's something that the hetero population can't grasp--who we feel attracted/connected to, who we love, who we want to spend our lives with is just allowed to be. It's unquestioned and natural, making it difficult to imagine what it'd be like if we couldn't just be. Reading these soldiers' stories gave me a perspective I otherwise wouldn't have really seen. I could spout my thoughts about equality and same-sex marriage and all the things, but until now, I hadn't sincerely understood the disgrace, the fear, the loneliness that so many people are forced to deal with every day, in and out of the military.

While some of the accounts may feel repetitive at times, I think that's part of the point. This is not discrimination that only rare cases deal with--it's a common occurrence that needs to stop. One particular essay, though, by Tania Dunbar, touched me very deeply, sending literal chills through me as I read:

Tania Dunbar is a warrant officer in the U.S. Army. She was deployed in Iraq at the time of writing this, and is currently stationed in Georgia.

I have been in the Army for almost twelve years. My very first day in basic training, I knew I had found my calling. I also knew that I was gay, and I wasn't supposed to be there. My recruiter had made me sign a piece of paper saying I was not gay, have never had sex with anyone of the same sex, and had never attempted to marry anyone of the same sex. I signed it because I did not understand the extent to which the Army was going to make me hide a part of myself.

For the past eleven years I have had to conceal my family from my friends. Soldiers, with whom I sweat, bleed, and cry, can't ever meet the woman I love. Soldiers who depend on me for sound judgment and advice can never know who I myself go to when I need advice or solace. Friends who would die for me can't ever meet the person who makes me want to live. Don't get me wrong--there are a few soldiers who know I am gay, but it takes a long time to learn if you can trust someone with a secret that can ruin your career. So I don't make friends easily, I never have get-togethers at my home, and I don't go to military functions very often. For me, home life cannot mix with work life.

I am in Iraq now, separated from the love of my life, and I can't share that pain with anyone. If I am hurt or I die while in combat here, my girlfriend will not be notified. She wouldn't even be able to visit me in the hospital. We have to depend on an intricate web of lies and code words to get us through a year of separation. I find it strange to think that I am in a foreign country, making sure that other people are able to exercise their democratic rights, ensuring that they get their basic civil rights--to life, liberty, and happiness--while I don't get those same basic rights. And yet our allies allow homosexuals to serve openly in their militaries; they are deployed with us, and enjoy full rights.

Department of Defense Directive 5120.36, issued in July 1963 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, clearly states: "Every military commander has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may live or gather in off-duty hours."

That directive was issued to deal directly with racism in areas surrounding military communities fifteen years after Executive Order 9981, in which President Truman ordered the military to integrate. It was an obvious example of the military righting a wrong, just as the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be. The message--that military leaders have a responsibility to create an environment of tolerance and equality---is the same.

I love the Army and I love my girlfriend, and I should not have to choose between them. I volunteered to sacrifice my life for this country, but I can't even hug my girlfriend good-bye before I deploy. You have asked me to deploy twice to protect other people in other countries. You have asked me to stand vigil against terrorists in our country. I am asking the same from you now: I am asking you to treat me equally, protect me from injustice, and help me when other try to hurt me.

(Excerpted from Our Time: Breaking the Silence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by Josh Seefried. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Joshua David Seefried, 2011.)

When I finished this essay, I spoke aloud in my empty apartment, "Wow. I get it now." Obviously, without experiencing it myself, I'll never fully "get it," but if each and every one of us can get just a tiny bit closer to really understanding, imagine what the world could be like.

While the repeal is certainly a step in the right direction, we all know old stigmas and biases still remain. We can only hope that the discrimination and harassment that so many soldiers have dealt with prior to and under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" decreases as homosexuality begins to be acknowledged--and hopefully embraced--by all.

The Last Word: An inspiring collection shot through with a chilling hopefulness about the things we're all capable of if we truly open up to one another.

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