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Gay in the Coast Guard

Gay in the Coast Guard – It wasn’t always so well accepted (and could cost you your career)

Author’s Note (March 2014) – I had (and still to a certain degree have) very mixed emotions about writing and publishing this story.  In some ways it’s almost like my own “coming out”.  Of course what is coming out here is the sad truth about who we were in a time not so removed from the today.  I think it’s important for people today to know that their predecessors had it pretty tough at times.   If you have found this page directly from a search engine, I welcome you to Retroman40's World.  You can click on "Home" to learn more about me or just on "Who's Guarding the Coast" to learn more about my time as a United States Coast Guard Officer.  One thing I hope the reader will keep in mind that it really isn't fair to judge history by contemporary standards.  This isn't the 80s anymore.  Thirty years is a long time and things to change and sometime even for the better.  I also in no way mean this to be insulting to the Coast Guard.  Things were what they were and are what they are.  If you don't like what I've written, tell me where it is a falsehood and I will change it and accept responsibility for being wrong.  Of course, since everything below is based on firsthand knowledge, that probably isn't going to happen.

I recently saw in the news a story about two young Coast Guard women announcing their engagement at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT.  According to the story, the announcement was very well received as any engagement announcement should be.  After all, it is a time for celebration.  While it was heartening to see that the Coast Guard (as well as the rest of the military) has joined (perhaps “been forced into” is a better term) the 21st century, it wasn’t always so well accepted, especially for women, to be gay in the Coast Guard.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do not even remotely know either of the two women.  I am saddened and even embarrassed by some of the response to this I have seen in social media.  There are honestly some people who think that this is the beginning of the end for the service.  Don’t these people realize that this has been going on forever? 

During my 26 year career as a Coast Guard Officer (from 1983 to 2009) I personally “knew” three homosexual women.  I put knew in quotations since there is an excellent chance I knew additional gay women (and probably guys too) but I just wasn’t aware of their sexuality.  As an aside, I always find it hilarious when people tell me they never knew anyone in the Coast Guard who was gay.  The correct sentence is that they never “knew” (as in some combination of clueless and unaware) anyone in the Coast Guard that was gay.  Considering that about 2% of the male population is gay, you have to believe that about the same percentage of Coast Guard guys are/were gay. 

Two of the women just wanted to do their job and complete their respective enlistments.  I only became aware of their sexuality when for some reason I never figured out they trusted me enough to ask if the command was investigating them.  Why would they think that?  At a unit party, a heavily intoxicated guy asked them if they were gay since he never saw them with guys (I suspect at some point they had both rebuffed his romantic overtures; of course knowing the guy I would imagine that was a common thing).  The fact that a single inappropriate comment from a drunken fool could terrorize two women should tell the read just how bad it was in the 80s and even the 90s.

It’s the other story is truly tragic.  At her previous unit, rumors were started about a female Petty Officer being gay.  To quell the rumors (which were true), in truly desperate fashion, this young lady took up with and actually married another Coast Guard member.  Besides the fact that the guy was a slob as well as an abusive alcoholic, he was also just a plain old jerk.   Not surprisingly, this action quelled the rumors and allowed her to get on with her career.  After a couple years with the guy, as well as a transfer to my unit, she had just about had enough of the guy and left him.  While being “married” to the guy got rid of the gay label, leaving him made her, at least in the eyes of most of his friends, some sort of pariah.  Of course they started the rumors that she had been cheating on him and he kicked her out.  The whole thing had a very negative impact on the unit.

So how did I become aware that she was a lesbian?  It was real easy – she told me.  I was sitting in my house and around 9:00 dateless on a relatively crappy Friday night when the phone rang.  It was my friend.  She said she was with someone (I suspected at the time it was another guy, possibly from our unit since she was a “free agent”) at a bar near my home and asked me to stop by that she really needed to talk to me.  She had split with her jerky ex-husband a couple months before so I figured why not; besides, I knew her well enough and we got along really well.  She was a good Coastie and the crew really respected her.  It was about a 10 minute walk.  There was no way I was going to drive since knowing my friend, there might be a fair amount of drinking involved.  I walked into the place and saw she was sitting in a dark corner with another woman.  You didn’t have to be a genius to notice they were holding each other’s hands.  When I sat down they had already poured me a beer and my friend proceeded to tell me everything that was wrong with her ex as well as how since she started seeing in her new friend that her life was way better.  I asked her if any of the crew at the unit knew about her “friend”.  She said she was pretty sure the answer was no and she actually wanted to ask me if there were any suspicions at the command level.   I told her not that I knew of (and I would have known since I probably would have got stuck with any investigation).  She asked if I was going to tell anyone.  Of course I wouldn’t.  Why?  It wasn’t my style and besides, I’m actually quite proud that I’ve never been one for witch hunts or railroading.  After a couple more beers, I was relaxed enough to ask her why the hell she married the guy in the first place.  The answer was not what I expected.  Before I go on, you have to remember that witch hunts were very popular in the Coast Guard in the 80s and 90s.  The more popular hunts involved drug use but homosexuality was a close second.  Just mere rumors of drug use or homosexuality were enough to start the hunt – and the hunters really hated to come home with empty pockets.  Even if a hunt was unsuccessful, merely having the “druggie” or “gay” or “faggot” label hung on you could have a tremendous impact on a career (typically devastating it if not completely ending it).  She told me that at her last unit, she made the mistake of being seen with another woman coming out of a bar that was preferred by the gay and lesbian community by a couple guys from the unit.  They started some rumors and to quell them she tried joking that they didn’t realize it was a gay bar.  When that didn’t work and the rumors persisted, she got into a relationship with her soon to be ex.  Since we’d gone this far with the discussion, I had to ask if she ever even had sex with the guy.  Her answer was “a couple times, but usually he was so drunk that he’d just pass out around the house.”  She related that she took extraordinary precautions to avoid pregnancy.   Personally, I can’t imagine how painful that had to be; living with an abusive alcoholic and at the same time being denied of all the pleasure of a true companion.  She admitted it was a really bad idea, but at the time she was scarred of being tossed out and while she hated the whole thing, it did stop all the rumors.  She had even heard that her abusive jerk of a soon to be ex would brag about his sexual prowess at work.  She figured that he must have been dreaming about while passed out in an alcoholic stupor.

Once we got through our discussion, I actually had a pretty good time and we really didn’t drink that much (by our standards at the time).  Her friend gave me a ride home.  I was actually impressed that she felt confident enough to confide in me.  When she was with her jerk of a husband she always looked beat down and pale (I suspect that he physically abused her but she didn’t want any attention or investigation launched).  She looked genuinely happy sitting in that tavern that evening.  Her face had color and she even glowed; I guess that’s what true love does.  There was one final incident  involving both my friend and her ex that provided one final chance for this guy and his pals to try one more railroading.  Sadly it involved some drinking and I was involved.  Naturally I refused to participate (and even threatening to expose some of the guys behaviors) in the whole thing and it died out quickly.   Thankfully, we were both transferred later that year with no one the wiser regarding her sexuality.

I ran into my friend about a year later when she was in my new town.  I was genuinely pleased when she called me to see if I wanted to get together.   I took her to the local pizza place for dinner and a couple beers.  She looked really good.  She told me she was near the end of her enlistment and had extended long enough to finish her tour but would be getting out and going back to school.  I still wonder if the hug she gave me when I dropped her off was genuine affection or just a show for the guys who were standing around; probably a little of both.  I’m actually sad I lost track of her as she really a dynamite person.  It just makes me shake my head at what she had to do and really makes me wonder if this is an isolated incident or more common than the average person may think.  Sadly I suspect the later.

One final word – I wish Katlin Ward and Lauren Bloch all the best both in their careers and in their marriage.  I hope going into it they realize that the odds aren’t “ever in your favor” for married couples in the Coast Guard, especially officers.  While co-location helps, unit schedules often force long periods of being apart.  As couples advance, co-location opportunities can become limited to larger units (like Coast Guard Headquarters and District Offices) and often requires one partner to “take a hit” careerwise so the other can accept a great assignment.  Still, I know many couples who survived the pitfalls because of the strength of their love.  To Katlin and Lauren I wish you all my best as you begin your journey through life and the Coast Guard.  Semper Paratus!

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