An excerpt from “Closets, Combat and Coming Out,” the first African-American Iraq war memoir, by veteran, writer, and LGBT activist Rob Smith.
ONE LATE SATURDAY NIGHT, I found myself alone at local gay club Hide and Seek when a cute redhead approached me on the dance floor. I danced with him relaxed and carefree like I did with all the others, but I stopped in my tracks when I noticed two very familiar faces through the neon-blue haze of the club.
Right next to the bar, standing beside two women, were Sergeant Kane with PFC Lopez, another soldier from my platoon. Though Hide and Seek was known mostly as a gay club, it was also one of the few after-hours spots in the city. It wasn’t uncommon for straight couples to come if they wanted to extend the night past 2AM. I had no doubt that Kane and Lopez belonged in this category.
I froze in fear. My first instinct was to leave the club right then and there, but they’d already made eye contact with me. I cringed as they smiled, turned to each other, and started to laugh as if a long- held theory had finally been proven. I panicked, wondering how much they saw. I felt my entire body go slack. I knew it was over. I knew I’d return to base that Monday morning to find my discharge paperwork waiting for me because I’d been seen “telling” by two soldiers in my platoon. The DADT policy was sneaky like that. I’d recently done a little digging, and learned that I didn’t have to come out to anyone to get kicked out. If I were seen “engaging in homosexual conduct” I could have charges brought down upon me.
I was quite certain that the amount of pelvis-grinding that I was engaged in with the cute redhead easily qualified.
Unfortunately, there was only one exit from the basement, and using it required the need to walk directly past Kane and Lopez. Maybe it was possible that they hadn’t seen me do anything. I rushed past with my head down, but heard the unmistakable “Smith!” booming from Kane’s loud voice right before I hit the stairs.
My shoulders fell. I was caught. I turned around and looked in Kane’s direction, everywhere but in his face because I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eyes. In that moment I felt deeply ashamed. I felt as if everything I’d done thus far to try to be a good soldier was nullified. I knew I was an average soldier and nothing special in that respect. I knew that I just got the job done and nothing more, but I’d managed to stay out of trouble for the past three years. I’d avoided the legal pitfalls of other soldiers who got arrested for domestic abuse, DUIs or public intoxication.
“I cursed being gay, cursed the Army, and cursed the fact that I’d even decided to go out that night.”
Even after all of that work, my military career would be killed because I got caught in a sleazy gay bar in a desperate search for somewhere to express myself.
“Yes, Sergeant?” I said.
“First of all, fucking relax, man,” he said. “You come here a lot?”
I continued to look down, embarrassed and frightened beyond belief.
“From time to time,” I said.
“Where you heading off to in such a hurry?”
“Home. Guess I gotta start packing.”
He seemed perplexed by this, and he furrowed his brow as if trying to figure out a complicated mathematical theorem.
“Look, just calm down. I’m not gonna… Look, man, just chill out, okay?” he said. “You wanna go, then go, but I’m not forcing you to go anywhere.”
“Okay,” I said.
I turned around to make my way up the stairs and out of the club. I felt deeply ashamed in that moment. I didn’t know whether it was because I was gay or because I got caught. The rules made being gay such a punishable secret that it was hard to see the boundaries sometimes. If being gay were normal or natural, certainly it wouldn’t be legally punishable in the military. In a place deep within me I knew there wasn’t anything normal or natural about what I’d been doing for the past few years. It wasn’t because of the gay aspect but of the lack of any type of real connection to the various bodies I’d become accustomed to giving myself over to.
I drove home in stunned silence. The traffic lights were blurry blobs of red, green, and yellow through my tears. I was just over a year from my end date, and this was how it was going to end? Caught at a gay club and railroaded out without hopes of seeing even a penny of the fifty thousand in college funds that I was contracted to receive. I cursed being gay, cursed the Army, and cursed the fact that I’d even decided to go out that night.
Maybe my mother was right. Maybe it really wasn’t what God intended, and I was getting what I deserved for being this way. It just seemed so deeply, fundamentally unfair. I had no control over my sexual orientation. I didn’t ask to be born like this, so why was it making things so hard? I stayed in bed for most of that Sunday, scared shitless at what the next day would bring.
That Monday morning after PT, I walked into the unit headquarters expecting to enter a sea of cutting glances and whispers, but heard nothing. I wasn’t called into the Company Commander’s office and wasn’t reprimanded for anything. It was a normal day, just like any other day. Later on in the afternoon, I spied Sergeant Kane signing in some equipment, and I approached him. He looked at me sternly. ‘What’s up, Specialist?’ he said.
“Uh, nothing much, Sergeant,” I said.
His look relaxed a bit. “You have fun dancing? It was interesting running into you,” he said, and I froze.
Another soldier from the platoon, PFC Conch, was within earshot, and came over to join in on the conversation. Conch was a young, jovial white kid from Kentucky, which was a source of never ending teasing from some of the platoon members.
“Yeah, where were you guys at?” he asked.
At this, Sergeant Kane turned to him. “None of your damn business!” he said jokingly, in an exaggeratedly annoyed manner.
“Hey, my bad, Sarge, my bad!” Conch said in the same jovial manner, and walked away. I looked at Sergeant Kane and smiled hesitantly. He cocked his head up and looked at me with a mischievous smile.
“Motherfuckers be so goddamned nosey at times,” he said. “Ain’t that right, Smith?”
I smiled widely, filled with a sense of relief. “Roger that, Sergeant,” I said. “Nosey as shit.”
That exchange ended my fears of Sergeant Kane and/or PFC Lopez turning me in. Those two were thick as thieves. I knew that if Sergeant Kane wasn’t going to say anything, Lopez wouldn’t. I respected Kane a great deal for that, and was glad that he didn’t decide to make things hard for me. I wondered if it would’ve been any different had Sergeant Norman seen me at the club. I never wanted to find out. After the incident with Kane, I gathered that most soldiers wouldn’t care much if they knew, but I still needed to keep my guard up. I wondered if there would ever be a day when it just didn’t matter. When I didn’t have to do so much sneaking around, but I knew that day was very far away.
“Closets, Combat and Coming Out” is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and wherever LGBT books are sold.
More information can be found at www.robsmithonline.com.