A Gay Marine Reflects on the End of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell'

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A United States Marine guards a checkpoint in Afghanistan.
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The following essay is excerpted by permission from 'The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans,' co-edited by J. Ford Huffman and Tammy S. Schultz

It Is Possible That Someone in the Room is Gay    

By Maj. Dirk Diener, U.S. Marine Corps

"The people at work don’t know I’m gay," the sailor said. "I can really be butch when I want to."

My friend the sailor was a stereotype of effeminacy, and I’m fairly certain that using "butch" to describe yourself is an indicator that you’re not fooling anyone.

I’m cognizant of the fact that we don’t always view ourselves with honest eyes. But when I say you would never know I was gay, I am telling the truth. How do I know? I’ve been fooling one of the most fiercely heterosexual organizations in the world throughout my 17-year career.

I was in college when I enlisted in the Army Reserve. In 1988 the recruiters were allowed to ask about sexual orientation, and I lied. I can’t say why, it’s been so long ago, except to say being in the military is something I always wanted to do. I wanted to join after high school but my father’s advice was to go to college first. "You can always join the military after college," he said, "but you probably won’t do college after the military." I think he knew me better than I did, so I enrolled in college and then enlisted.

Being gay has always been a conflict for me. I have always known I was gay and never – in my mind – denied my sexuality, but as a kid I tried never to let my being gay show. I knew that being interested in girls was normal and I wanted to be normal, to fit in. I didn’t want to stand out. Fitting in was not a problem. I was a bigger than average kid, liked sports and hunting, and made friends easily. I was not always the center of attention but usually I was somewhere close. I honed my skills of engagement with the opposite sex well enough to keep everyone fooled, although that’s an area in which I was never comfortable.

Being a "weekend warrior," going to college, and being gay were never a problem; the three were never in conflict. I pretended to be straight while I was in college, including in front of my fraternity brothers. During my Reserve drill weekends I hung with the rest of the soldiers, drilled, drank beer afterward, and kept up the facade.

After college I left the Reserve so I could enlist in the Marine Corps as a Russian linguist. "Don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT), the political compromise, was in effect and the recruiter never asked about my sexual orientation. However, to become a Marine is to be cut from the same cookie cutter as other Marines of the past, present, and future. To be perceived as different only gained you the attention of those who were senior and could make your life miserable. I had to continue the lie and pretend I wasn’t gay. This wasn’t a stretch for me. My family never knew, I had kept it to myself in college, and I’ve been pretending I wasn’t gay my whole life. However, I wasn’t "acting straight," I was being myself.

Unfortunately, while at language school and trying to assimilate into the hyper-hetero, masculine Marine Corps, I almost became a homophobe. This was part of my front, right or wrong. I always had girlfriends or women I pretended to be interested in. I distanced myself away from other Marines and military personnel who showed up on my "gaydar" – which was no guarantee that they were gay – and I made fun of them. However, occasionally I would feel the burden of the facade and drive to a different city, looking for a gay bar in a desperate attempt to make some kind of intangible connection I felt I was missing.

My first duty station after school was in England, where I maintained my front and had a girlfriend. I always wanted children and never believed that as a gay man I would have any. But before I left for Officer Candidate School (OCS) my girlfriend wanted to get pregnant. Without seriously considering how being a father would change my life, I agreed. After beginning OCS and finding out she was pregnant I asked her to marry me. I wasn’t in love. I asked her because I wanted to be a father and not just a sperm donor. I believed that my commitment to the child (and later, another child) would enable me to maintain my marriage.

I was wrong. My marriage was over 7 years after the vows. I never cheated or sneaked out to connect with the gay world I was missing, and being intimate with my wife was never a problem. I believe the marriage could have lasted regardless of my sexuality but, unfortunately, we had too many other insurmountable differences.

As an officer of Marines my career has led me across the globe to places I consider lucky to have been and with people I’m lucky to have met. I’ve been on exercises throughout the Pacific, deployed in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and completed a tour with the United Nations in the Republic of Georgia.

Throughout these adventures I tried to maintain a professional manner. My sexuality was never a deterrent to how I performed and accomplished the mission. Also, I came out to some members of the military after I had established a level of trust. Why? I wanted to get closer to them so that I could bond and feel accepted. I have never been betrayed by any of those sailors and Marines, and I thank them for seeing me as a person regardless of who I am attracted to.

I love my children, my family, my service to my country, and the Corps. I chose to lie when I enlisted the in the Army Reserve and then later when I put up a front in the Corps. I justified my lie because I wanted to do something with my life and be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to make a positive difference not just in my life but in the lives of others. Have I done this? Maybe.

What about the service members and civilians I distanced myself from or publicly belittled because I thought they might be gay? What about all the Marines and the institution of the Corps I’ve lied to every day for more than 17 years? The repeal of DADT is amazing to me. I never believed I would serve in the Marine Corps and be able to be myself.

I’ve thought about staying in the closet after the repeal. My concern is that all my professional relationships might be re-evaluated by other Marines. "Did Maj. Diener give me a bad fitness report because I said I don’t like homosexuals?" "Did Maj. Diener only want to be my gym partner because he was attracted to me?"

During DADT repeal training in 2011, comments by some of my fellow Marines reinforced those concerns. I was in a class of officers and staff NCOs who discussed the repeal as if it were impossible that someone in the room could be a homosexual.

So I’ve made the decision to come out. I won’t be wearing tiara or boa, and I won’t leave a trail of glitter. I am just tired of lying. Although freeing, the repeal and my coming out are a Damocles’ sword because the perception of who I am as a Marine and as a person will change for some.

However, I haven’t changed. I am who I am:

A Marine . . . and gay.

Maj Diener enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1988 and in the Marine Corps in 1994.  This essay is excerpted from 'The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans,' co-edited by J. Ford Huffman and Tammy S. Schultz (Marine Corps University Press, March 2012).

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The views expressed in the book are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, Marine Corps University, Marine Corps War College, Marine Corps University Press or the Marine Corps University Foundation.