What is Courage in 2015 America?
For the last several months our celebrity-obsessed popular culture has given vast coverage to the transformation of Bruce Jenner, onetime Olympian, into Caitlyn Jenner, tabloid icon. I have been profoundly uninterested in this saga from the get-go. I remember Bruce when he adorned cereal boxes in my childhood. I lost all track of him until he reappeared, decades later, as part of the horrible Kardashian family, which was a warning to the sentient that Jenner should be safely ignored.
Jenner has now cleverly reinvented himself/herself/whatever as a woman. Sort of. Jenner shows no interest in gender reassignment surgery, and he still professes sexual interest in women, while espousing Republican conservatism, so this appears to be the best-publicized cross-dressing exercise in human history.
Let me be clear. I fully support the right of all adults to live their lives how they see fit. If Bruce wants to be Caitlyn, to be called her not him, that’s cool with me. Moreover, let’s be honest: this poor guy (now girl) had to spend twenty-four years of wedded bliss to Kris Kardashian, one of the world’s worst people who isn’t a member of the Islamic State. I would lose my mind after twenty-four minutes with Kris, so Jenner has lots of sympathy here.
With her transformation, Caitlyn gets tons of payback. Massive coverage in the media, fawning interviews galore, plus an impending TV reality show that will, no doubt, give the Kardashians the overdue comeuppance that a few hundred million Americans crave. The stars are shining on Caitlyn.
To add to the accolades, Jenner has received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, named after the tennis great who died of AIDS in 1993. This award didn’t sit well with everybody in the sports world, with skeptics feeling that the courage shown by Jenner in her gender transformation fell a bit short of that august award’s high standards.
Not being a sports maven — my interest seldom goes beyond The Ocho — I won’t comment on that but let me add that I know LGBT people more deserving of courage awards than Jenner. Make that a lot of LGBT people.
While I don’t doubt it’s difficult to tell the world you’re undertaking gender transformation when you’re sorta famous and at an age most people are looking into retirement communities, this doesn’t meet my threshold of award-level courage.
In the military and the Intelligence Community, I’ve had the privilege of serving with many LGBT Americans who routinely showed more courage than Jenner — and who will never be on the cover of any magazines nor get their own reality show.
By the time I joined NSA in the mid-1990’s the IC’s longtime ban on gays and lesbians in the workforce was rescinded, but there were plenty of staffers who still had PTSD from hiding in the shadows for decades, fearful of a call, at any time, from Agency security inquiring into their private life.
In the aftermath of the defection of two NSA employees to Moscow in 1960, whom the Agency believed were gay, a hunt for secret homosexuals took place that had reverberations for decades. When my father, a career NSA officer, had the misfortune of showing up at Fort Meade only months after the defection, like countless others he was given harsh questioning, including while strapped to the polygraph, to determine if he was a secret “homo.”
In an amazing fail, Martin and Mitchell, the defectors who caused all the panic, were not actually homosexual, but that mattered little to NSA, which for decades associated gays with treason. I had LGBT coworkers in the 1990s who still couldn’t quite believe that the Agency was copacetic with their sexual preference. One co-worker had gotten so accustomed to living in the shadows that he had to be all but begged to invite his partner of two decades to an NSA social event. The fear lingered.
The military was similar. Even after President Clinton implemented Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 1994, many military members had difficulty accepting that LGBT personnel were no longer subject to invasive scrutiny. Like anybody who’s served in the U.S. military and is being honest, I knew lots of gays and lesbians in uniform.
I was in the Navy, which — let’s be honest — has more than a little association with the LGBT community. In the late 1970’s, the Navy really did plan to use the Village People’s “In the Navy” video as a recruitment tool until some hipper junior officers explained to admirals in the Pentagon what that famous group was singing about.
A decade later, the Navy supported Cher’s famous “If I Could Turn Back Time” video — the one with the gay icon, nearly naked, straddling a battleship’s sixteen-inch cannon in front of a thousand cheering sailors — because it estimated that it saved the Naval service $10 million in recruiting costs.
That’s right, the Navy determined that a lot of guys joined the service on the basis of a Cher video. For years I dined out on the punchline: I guess that tells us who’s joining the Navy. Add “it’s not gay if it’s underway” jokes as needed.
There was always a darker side, however. Many LGBT personnel in all the services endured decades of harassment and abuse. Even the more tolerant Navy had its share of terrible incidents. In late 1992, Allen Schindler (no relation), a sailor on USS Belleau Wood, was beaten to death for being gay, a crime that spurred Clinton’s DADT policy.
In my time in the Navy I never saw any harassment of LGBT personnel, but that’s perhaps because my community, the spooky intelligence sailors, had so many gays and lesbians. Officers estimated that twenty-five percent of intel sailors were LGBT, and even before DADT died in 2011, many of them served rather openly. Certainly Monterey’s Defense Language Institute, where intelligence linguists were educated, long enjoyed a hook-up culture that was open to straights and gays alike, sometimes to the consternation of senior officers.
The Navy was always more open-minded than the Army or Air Force (the latter service in particular, with its strong evangelical Christian culture, before 2011 was prone to periodic “fag hunts” as they were termed to root out closeted gays and lesbians) and I never witnessed any anti-homosexual antics myself. Of course, that may be self-selection, since I was an officer who was known to be “gay friendly” and, for instance, would sign leave chits without questions. This could be an issue under DADT when you were taking time off to visit, say, a partner’s sick parent.
I also knew gay and lesbian officers who had great careers yet who were always a bit afraid under DADT that they might get exposed. Even the Army now has an openly serving gay general officer. The key word is “openly”: there have been many LGBT generals and admirals, up to the four-star level — this is no secret in certain circles — now they just don’t have to hide it.
The military is better off now that LGBT Americans can serve openly, without fear. But we must never forget that many gay and lesbian Americans have served honorably, even heroically, when they had to hide in the shadows. That is true courage. Let me add the same about the many LGBT Americans who serve in our police and emergency services who, per Kipling’s great line, guard you while you sleep.
I hope Caitlyn Jenner is happy with her new life. I would prefer that the media get out of its celebrity obsession and honor some of the ordinary, un-famous LGBT Americans — soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, cops, EMTs — who serve us all with a degree of heroism that will never be required of any reality TV stars.