In February, my boyfriend, Paul, left the military. Millions of TV viewers think they know Paul because he occasionally visited me in New Orleans when I was on The Real World. Even though Paul’s face was always electronically blurred on the show, people came to a lot of conclusions about him. Most assumed he was some typical young recruit in the Navy, that his job was just a job – and that he could go out and get another job if the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy got too tricky to deal with.
The truth is, he was a captain in the U.S. Army, the military was his life, and it had been for twelve years. I met Paul two weeks before The Real World, we fell in love, and we’ve been together ever since. Right after The Real World wrapped in early 2000, Paul got stationed in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I moved there with him. For the next year and a half, I felt like a prisoner in our apartment. We couldn’t risk being seen together, not only because of my recognizability but because of Paul’s rank. If you’re caught lying about your sexual orientation, you can get in so much trouble. He could even have faced jail.
What people never think of when it comes to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is that if a boyfriend or a girlfriend is involved, that rule ends up applying to him or her, too. The civilian half of the relationship – in our case, me – has to keep the relationship in the closet, too. Which was so surreal, because I was out to literally millions of TV viewers.
In Wilmington, I felt like I was in Nazi Germany, having to hide my papers. Paul and I would never go to the movies on the weekends – only weekday matinees when hardly anybody was there. There were certain hours we knew not to go to the grocery store. We could never go to dance clubs – somebody might see us.
What Paul and I went through was what other gay couples go through every day when one half of the couple is in the military. You both live in fear of somebody finding out. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” turns into “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t live.”
What kept me sane was that we traveled a lot; we took little vacations. And I’d already started a post–Real World career as a public speaker, touring colleges to promote tolerance, so I’d get away from Wilmington when I did that, too.
Last summer, Paul started doing the paperwork to get out of the military (when you have rank, it’s kind of up to the military to decide when you’re allowed to leave). Then September 11 happened, he was put on hold, and he almost got sent to Afghanistan. He definitely would have gone if the Army had sent him – he was proud to serve his country. I know for a fact that he’d still be in the military were it not for our relationship.
By December, all the papers were processed. By February, he was completely out of the Army.
There’s nothing they can do to him now.
We ended up moving to Seattle – to make a major change and get away from the South. I make a good living on the lecture circuit, but Paul, whose position was “I’m going to leave the military and see what happens,” landed in the job market in the middle of a recession. He was an Army captain who had been planning to spend his entire life in the military and go up through the ranks. And now, with our nation at war, when the Army is short of officers, he’s managing a retail store. It’s been a huge ego blow for him.
Paul had to leave the military because he’s gay, but now that he’s done with it, he doesn’t want to be the poster child for the acceptance of gays in the military. He has no intention of becoming a public figure – he doesn’t want all the bullshit that he sees me having to deal with.
Paul’s position is that it’s ridiculous for anybody to expect the military to accept gays overnight. That will not happen until our society in general accepts gays, because our military is just a reflection of our society and our society’s values. There are a lot of people in the armed forces who still think it’s perfectly okay to kill somebody because they don’t believe in the way he lives his life. It happened with Barry Winchell, and it’ll happen again.
Some people argue, “Well, the military has to be progressive. Make people accept it.” But that’s not the military’s job. The military’s role is not to advance social issues. That’s Hollywood’s job!
And, to my surprise, it’s become my job, too.
Basically, I did The Real World as an escape from a shitty job. I was an office bitch at an insurance company in Atlanta. Call me naïve, but I never imagined that anything real would come out of The Real World, because it is what it is – a cheesy little reality-TV show.
But now, because of the show, I’ve gone from filing and answering phones to being part of this great change in society, you know?
What’s happened to me since I first appeared on MTV has often been overwhelming. I never wanted to be a gay activist. But what I realize over and over again when I tour the country and when I read my e-mail and message boards (I run a gay-community site called CountrytoConcrete.com) is that there are still a lot of gays out there who are lost and afraid. I don’t want to sound too over-the-top about this, but my heart is full of love and courage, and I want to share it with the world. So that’s what I’m doing.