The young man was scared and exhausted as he faced the webcam in the wee hours of the morning and prepared to call his father.
He was sitting in his bedroom in Germany, where he is stationed at a U.S. Air Force base. A map of the world hung on the wall behind him, but he was focused on what awaited him in America.
“I’m probably about as nervous as I can ever remember being,” he said into the camera. “I’m about to call my dad in Alabama.”
The timing for his call Tuesday was intentional. The U.S. military had just put an end to its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which for 18 years had required gay and lesbian members of the military to keep their sexual orientation a secret.
For the first time in the life of this 21-year-old senior airman — later identified by The Washington Post as Randy Phillips — he didn’t have to worry about being lawfully persecuted for being honest about who he is.
Congress repealed DADT, but it can’t legislate a loved one’s heart. Phillips was scared to tell his father.
“I wish I wasn’t going against the grain,” he said in a YouTube video last spring, titled “I didn’t choose to be gay.” His face was partially obscured. “I wish this wasn’t something that wasn’t expected of me. I wish … I went along with what my parents planned for me and what they thought I would develop into. And it’s not.”
He was ready to go public, face-forward, and he wanted to do it by coming out to his father. It was clear he had no idea how this call was going to go.
He dialed his father’s number, set it to speakerphone.
“My heart is beating like crazy,” he whispered.
His father answered with a cheerful hello.
“Can I tell you something?” Phillips asked his dad. “Will you love me, serious?”
“Yes,” his father said.
“Dad, I’m gay.”
“Yikes,” his father said.
“Do you still love me?”
I could barely look at the screen; I was so scared for this boy, who’s younger than all of my kids.
His father didn’t miss a beat.
“I still love you, son,” he said gently, as if he were sitting right next to him.
A few moments later, his father said it again.
“I still love you, and I will always love you, and I will always be proud of you.”
One down. Thousands of loved ones to go.
If you are close to someone who is gay, it’s likely you’ve heard his or her stories of abandonment by people who were supposed to love that person. These are heartbreaking narratives about mothers and fathers, siblings and used-to-be best friends. They are sometimes stories of forgiveness, too, in which the intolerant are beneficiaries of unearned grace.
UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that 70,500 lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are currently serving in the U.S. military. Many of them will continue to live secret lives because a change in the law doesn’t change everything else that comes with being gay in America.
Still, it is possible to be hopeful and imagine those unfolding moments when, one by one, gay and lesbian members of our military finally feel free to be themselves.
To a point.
The repeal of DADT does not bring full rights to gays and lesbians who are putting their lives on the line for our country. The Defense of Marriage Act, another federal law, defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. This effectively prohibits same-sex partners’ access to military privileges afforded to heterosexual spouses. No trips to the base commissary, for example, or medical treatment at base clinics.
“We follow the law here,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a news conference when asked about spousal benefits. “DOMA, that law, restricts some of the issues that you talk about. We’re going to follow that law as long as it exists.”
My, what we ask of our gay brothers and sisters in America.
How we count on them to forgive us, one rectified injustice at a time.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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