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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
It’s a bit of a long story, how I found myself in pajamas, a gay woman, standing next to my pickup truck in the rain outside of Fort Sam Houston, discreetly ignored by all the hundreds of soldiers driving onto post. The story begins with hard rain and a bicycle, and then a stranger answering my wife’s cellphone — but let’s trim it down to the basics. She’d crashed, and was being loaded into an ambulance on post, and I was stuck outside Fort Sam because same-sex spouses don’t get the military-issued ID card that says you can pass the gate without an escort.
So that’s what I was doing in the rain: waiting for an escort. The guy who answered my wife’s phone said that if I got inside within 10 minutes I could see her before the ambulance doors closed. “Is she conscious?” I’d asked. “Yes,” he answered, “but you should hurry.”
Mornings were trafficky, I’ll be fair. Maybe because of the quarter-mile of cars, or maybe because I wasn’t a “real” wife who could have just waited her turn in line to pass the gate, the ambulance doors closed without me. Somebody wheeled my wife’s scuffed-up bike inside the building for safekeeping. The ambulance departed to the base hospital. Meanwhile, outside, the rain slowed. My pajamas clung. I dashed between bumpers to get across the street, and hopped into our friend’s VW — our friend the Army captain, whose uniform and ID card, and especially her goodwill, would bail us out often in the weeks ahead as my wife recovered from a broken jaw.
* * * *
When the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed two years before, I deleted a Gmail account that belonged to my male alter ego, Sam Cypher. Sam wrote love letters to my wife on her 12-hour watches in a Coast Guard command center. Some Americans feared what gays and lesbians serving “openly” in the military would look like — as if Army Ranger PT shorts weren’t already the most fabulous garment Richard Simmons never wore — but all it meant for us, and most same-sex spouses in our situation, was that we could quietly stop using spy tradecraft on date nights. When my wife was transferred for medical training to an Army base in Texas, and then a year later to an Air Force base in California, we had the chance to make friends as a couple for the first time in our three years of marriage.
I say this reservedly. It’s not like we were throwing dinner parties. Most same-sex couples can relate to that faint miasma of risk that surrounds public displays of affection, and even with DADT gone, my wife kept her orientation on a need-to-know basis with classmates. You’d be surprised how smooth it becomes, torturing the English language to field questions without using gender pronouns. In the early days of class, pre-bike accident, a North Dakota National Guardsman pointed to her wedding band and asked, “So what does your husband do?”
“My wife loves to read! Does he work for a publisher?”
(Mumbling a little): “Has a freelance business and works at home.”
“What’s his name?”
As it turned out, Sam’s heyday wasn’t quite over. The repeal opened the doors for encounters between colleagues who disagree about the place of homosexuality in American life, and if our experience is a guide, for a lot of conservative guys to meet real lesbians for the first time ever. Employing almost 3 million active and reserve personnel, the U.S. military is one of the largest and most diverse communities in America. Most active-duty personnel rotate to new units at least once every four years. In other words, life here means not being able to avoid people who make you uncomfortable — and sometimes, being shocked by what comes out of your friends’ mouths.
The North Dakota National Guardsman was raised Mormon, and he sat next to my wife in class. During a psychiatry lecture, on the subject of child abuse, he whispered under his breath, “Well, it’s true. All the pedophiles are gay people.” And in another class, the professor, in a stunning one-two Bigot Judo maneuver, asserted, “If you let homosexuals in the military, HIV rates will rise. The same thing happened with syphilis when they let blacks in.” The National Guardsman was nodding. My wife came home at the end of the day, hands shaking and voice trembling as she repeated the story. But when she finally told him that her spouse’s name was Sarah, not Sam, and asked if that was going to be a problem, he shook himself as if waking, and said, “Wow, I have so many questions.” He began running with us on Saturdays, dropped by our house randomly with takeout food, and most tellingly, during the Broken Jaw Incident, brought his 2-year-old daughter to our house to play.
Sometimes ignorance is benign, a natural part of growing up. A former Army chaplain’s assistant confessed to me, ”I was the kid who called people fags in high school.” He also wanted to know, innocently, “You are both feminine-looking, but is there one of you that is, like, more the guy in the relationship?” There’s also the deeply Baptist airman who gets hung up the same thing. When our dryer went on the fritz, he asked, “Isn’t one of you … handy with tools?” and, “Which one of you is in charge of killing bugs?” FYI, my wife and I defer to a natural preference here: She kills the roaches, while I get the spiders and anything that flies. (In Texas, the conundrum of flying roaches led to chaos.) More to the point, though, neither of us is “the guy.” That’s the idea behind a lesbian relationship. It doesn’t really compute in the airman’s head, but he invites us over for dinner with his wife and sons, and we play Scrabble.
We accept that we are not going to change everyone’s mind. A thrice-married retired Air Force colonel said about my wife and me, “I think you two are absolutely great. But to be honest, my faith compels me to believe that real marriage is one man and one woman.” And a beat later, “Did you marry her because you felt you couldn’t find the right guy?” Inarticulate anger pooled in the back of my mouth, and if I hadn’t been so shocked, I would have asked him if I should’ve gotten married a few more times before changing teams. But maybe it was better that I replied neutrally, telling him that I always knew I couldn’t be happy with any guy at all. It wasn’t that the colonel had bad intentions for us. After the Broken Jaw Incident, knowing I’d be preparing a lot of smoothies, he and his wife showed up at the house with a blender. So, even if religious reasons compel some to balk at our constitutional right to equal protection under the law, at least the Golden Rule suggests pro-social behavior.
While I expect my country to hold people to the strictest standards of fairness in their national conduct — in everything from nondiscrimination to refraining from torture — in day-to-day conversations, you have to choose to see hope wherever you can find it. Over and over, we have heard from these military friends, the ones who have never knowingly met gays and lesbians, “I have so many questions.” Those questions are usually honest, gentle and welcome. Among the friends who aren’t new to gayness, the most common reaction to us is to whip out an iPhone, fiddle with the Photos app until the face of a smiling woman is visible, and show her off with a flourish: This is my cousin. She’s gay. This is my friend from my last unit. This is my aunt and her wife. This is my sister.
* * * *
After the surgery that pieced my wife’s jaw together with a titanium plate, it made sense to drive to Fort Sam with her each morning, to carry her 13 metric tons of medical textbooks upstairs to the classroom. Besides affording me a sweet privilege usually reserved for middle-schoolers, it jolted me back to adolescence in another way, too: In a room of 70 uniformed and mostly male service members, I was again a lone woman in civvies, schlepping my gay wife’s book bag to the front of the room. Uneasy, flashing back to that rainy morning at the gate in front of God and everybody, I kept my head down and delivered the books to the correct seat — though it would have been pretty hard to upstage my wife, what with her swollen mouth and whole-head bandage called a face bra.
We said goodbye and I started to creep from the room, only to hear, “Hey, Sarah.” “Good morning, Sarah.” “How are you, Sarah?” From the sea of digital camo emerged familiar faces — our friends, who had entered our life one at a time over the course of a year. Another friend leaned in and murmured, “I wouldn’ta figured you had such a strong right hook, but I just wanna say, nobody blames you for busting her jaw. She’s a pain in the ass.” My wife’s Brooklyn seatmate glided past, saying, “Heya, co-wifey.” Military humor is weird and dark and all kinds of wrong, but one thing is for sure. It’s not like middle school. Getting teased is a sign of acceptance.
I’m not saying this is enough, forever. Laws matter. Being legally married everywhere in the United States matters. Until we are, our limbo status costs us about 15 grand a year in tax and employer benefits, and frankly, I’m tired of arguing our right to marry with the invisible conservatives in my head. What matters more — or I should say, what has mattered to us, in this single time of crisis — is that underneath the formalized structures that govern public policy is a deep stratum of human decency. How we treat one another and talk about one another’s lives is where change happens.
If you need any more proof of this, the North Dakota Guardsman approached my wife at the end of last summer and said that his little sister had just come out to him. “What should I say to her? How should I act?”
Through the device wiring her jaw shut, my wife mumbled, “Just be her big brother.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He rooted in his pocket. “Yeah. I can do that.” He pulled up his sister’s picture on his phone. “Here she is. See?”
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