Fighting While in Hiding

Four Tucson veterans recall the fear and madness of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

It was a fall day in 2006 when Hollace Lyon answered the phone and heard her partner say the word "fan."

Lyon didn't say anything in return. Instead, she hung up the phone and waited almost four months before she saw or talked regularly to her partner again.

Lyon's partner, Linda Thomas, today is the program director at Wingspan, Tucson's LGBT community and advocacy center. However, at the time of the phone call, Thomas was a colonel and mission support group commander at Andrews Air Force Base, completing the last six months of her 22-year military career.

Lyon had been retired from the U.S. Air Force for almost two years—leaving the service as a colonel—and was living in a townhouse that she owned with Thomas, some 18 miles away from the base.

"We had a code word—'fan,' as in shit hit the fan. So if something was going to happen, our agreement was that we would call or text each other the word 'fan,'" Thomas says.

The "something" was an accusation that either was gay. Under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, enacted in 1993, a person serving in the military could be discharged for being openly gay, lesbian or bisexual. All it took for the shit to start hitting the fan was an accusation.

After 22 years of service, Thomas couldn't believe "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was becoming an issue for her—and threatening a terrible end to a career she loved.

Lyon and Thomas spent their military careers hiding who they really are, covering their tracks and never revealing to co-workers that they are lesbians.

"We weren't God's gift to the Air Force," Thomas jokes, "but as far as support officers go, we were toward the top. Only one in 10 makes it to colonel."

Thomas had fired a major for being an ineffective squadron leader. She took a chance on a new person—but eventually, she discovered that he had a gambling problem, was writing bad checks on base, and was having an affair with his staff sergeant.

She decided to start court-martial proceedings against him. During the proceedings, his parents sent a letter to the secretary of the Air Force accusing Thomas of being gay.

"It was retribution. My boss recognized that, but under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' there were rules. I was asked to come into his office. I sat on the couch between the base lawyer and the vice wing commander. My boss said, 'Col. Thomas, I need to inform you that you've been accused of being a homosexual,'" she says.

Thomas says she just listened and didn't defend herself in any way. She was told her boss would have to do a review to determine whether one of four conditions existed: if she was married to a same-sex partner, tried to get married to a same-sex partner, was caught in a homosexual act, or had admitted to being gay.

"'If I don't find evidence of any of those four, then we will consider this matter closed,'" he told Thomas.

Thomas left the meeting, called Lyon and said the code word.

"(Military investigators) knew me, and they were sorry it happened, but once that stuff starts down that track, they have to do what they are supposed to do," Thomas says.

Lyon interrupts: "Keep in mind, she might not have been a lesbian, and (the parents of the squadron leader) still might have written a letter and ruined her career."

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has led the national charge to repeal DADT, more than 14,000 service members have been fired under DADT since 1993.

In December 2010, Congress approved a plan to repeal DADT, but advocates are still waiting for the repeal to be certified by the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. DADT remains the law until 60 days after certification.

Although it was reported by some media outlets that the repeal would be completed by April, all four military branches only recently began the required training to repeal the ban, and are expected to finish before the end of summer.

Looking back at her military career, Lyon says the DADT repeal, after so many years, is bittersweet. However, she's really happy for the LGBT service members who are 10 to 12 years into their military careers.

"It will be a relief to those people. I'm really happy for them," she says.

Lyon spent 26 years in the Air Force, signing up when she was 23 years old and retiring at the age of 49. She purposefully held off on finishing her master's degree for 10 years, because she knew that it came with promotions—as well as greater scrutiny and more background checks.

During George H.W. Bush's administration, Lyon's boss approached her to ask if she'd be interested in being considered for an aide assignment to Vice President Dan Quayle. Lyon said no—although her boss told her it wasn't appropriate to say no to these kinds of requests.

"There were several times when I purposefully sabotaged what seemed to be a meteoric progression in my career, because I couldn't stand the visibility," Lyon says.

Lyon joined the military knowing she might be gay, but didn't have enough self-awareness at the time to know that she wasn't being completely honest when she checked the box at the recruiter's office swearing she was not gay.

Thomas didn't think she was gay when she first joined the military; she was married to a man for 8 years during her service. But as she became aware of her sexuality after 16 years in the Air Force, she also became more cautious about what could happen if someone accused her of being gay.

It's important to recognize that in some ways, DADT made life better for LGBT military members. Before DADT, the burden of being gay and in the military was much more difficult: If someone was accused of being gay, it was relatively easy for a commander at his or her discretion to take that accused soldier down. However, under DADT, Thomas says, if a soldier kept his or her mouth shut and didn't deny or corroborate any accusations, it was difficult to be kicked out without absolute proof.

Thomas and Lyon were always careful. Before Lyon met Thomas, when she went to any women's bars, she covered the military decals on her silver Honda with duct tape. When they returned to work after weekends together, they were careful about how they talked to co-workers and never used gender-specific pronouns.

Thomas and Lyon began working together in 2001, and there was an attraction—but they had to make sure they could trust each other.

"We were interested, but how do you do that? I have to trust her not to turn me in, and she has to trust me not to turn her in," Thomas says.

Lyon likens the whole process to a kabuki dance.

"It's really difficult when you're a senior officer, and you feel like everyone is watching what you do. We were always careful about what restaurants we'd go to, or what we did together, to make sure no one recognized us. It was hard," Lyon says.

At one point in their relationship, they had to live apart for three years. Lyon lived in their townhouse and commuted to the Pentagon; meanwhile, Thomas lived on base while she served as mission support group commander, which was a highly visible job.

Security clearances were a stressful part of the military life. Lyon says security checks were done every five years. During Thomas' last security-clearance procedure, she says, she went to the townhouse for a party for friends and neighbors. During the party, a neighbor "broke down in tears, because an investigator had been asking about me." (The security check came back OK.)

Despite the stress of not being able to fully be herself, Thomas says she always did her job to the best of her abilities. Looking back, she feels lucky that she was never put in a position to force someone out of the military for being gay.

"I don't know what I would have done then. It probably would have depended on the circumstances. If it was someone who gets caught in public, then I wouldn't have much of a problem with it—but if it was somebody who minded their own business and just got caught up in something, I'd have a hard time. I probably would have considered resigning."

Carlos Torres—who joined the U.S. Army in 1991 when he was 19, and would go on to serve for 10 years—says he knew he was gay when he joined the military, but it wasn't a primary concern at the time.

The Puerto Rico native, who now works as the alternatives development manager for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, says he comes from a family with a long history of military service. He wanted to join the Armed Forces like his grandfather and uncles; he also realized he lacked discipline, and he wanted an opportunity to travel.

"Being gay was part of who I was, but not what I was. It wasn't an issue for me. I didn't have concerns about joining until right up to the minute that I took my oath," he says.

Torres went into logistics, and for his first five years, he was attached to aviation units before becoming a sergeant. During his last five years, he was attached to ground units and infantry. Torres says he loved his time in the military, but when he returned from Bosnia in 1997, he was confronted with an increase in homophobic and racist jokes, teasing and other derogatory comments—not necessarily aimed at him, but at other soldiers.

"I probably heard it on a daily basis, although it wasn't directed at me. It was the culture," he says. "It was not only tolerated, but to some degree kind of expected. If another soldier noticed someone they perceived to be gay or lesbian or whatever, it was expected that they would have something to say about it. And people of different ranks made the comments and jokes in front of people of higher rank, but no one ever addressed the issues."

The contradiction of being gay and in the military was becoming too much, and Torres finally decided to leave the Army. A friend recommended he contact the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network for advice. An attorney with the organization helped him draft a letter to his commander asking to be discharged—but then Sept. 11, 2001, came, and his attorney recommended that he wait.

"He was worried that they might not take (the letter) seriously, and (think) that I was doing it to get out of getting deployed. So we stopped the process," Torres says.

But in October 2001, while Torres was stationed at Fort Bragg, the post's newspaper published what Torres felt was a homophobic cartoon.

"When I saw it, I said to myself, 'Now I don't feel safe.' Up until then, I was never concerned about my safety, so I contacted my lawyer, and he asked me to send him the cartoon," he says.

The discharge process restarted. Torres points out that he wanted to retire for reasons beyond the challenges of being gay. An injury prevented him from running well—and in the Army, if you can't run, you can't get promoted.

"Nothing could be done, no surgery or physical therapies. My options were limited, and the other part of why I wanted out was that I met someone, and the person was relocating to Arizona. I had two years left on my contract. I decided it was time. I knew I couldn't get promoted, but I also knew I could never be myself in the Army and be happy."

Torres thought that once his commander received his discharge request, the process would begin immediately—but that didn't happen. His attorney had to call his first sergeant's office to find out what was happening.

"My first sergeant spoke to me and said, 'I don't care. You can do your job. That's all that matters to me,'" he says.

Torres told him he appreciated the sentiment, but he still wanted to be discharged.

"What really struck deep within me was that this cartoon ... wasn't published by a civilian paper, but (by) the base, so it was as if it was sanctioned. Now you have to keep in mind that before I was at Fort Bragg, I was at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, where a guy was beaten to death by his roommate (because he) thought he was gay," Torres says.

"I was extremely conscious of the environment that existed. ... I was not going to put my life in jeopardy—not in that way."

Prior to the cartoon, Torres says, he survived by dividing his life: He had a life in uniform, and a life out of uniform. He never shared details about his private life with co-workers.

Had the ban been lifted while he was in the military, he still wouldn't have come out, he says.

"The simple fact that the policy changed on paper doesn't mean it would change in people's hearts and people's minds," he says.

It took David Jerod Bolden only three years to make sergeant after he enlisted in the Army. It took five years for him to realize that he'd never be able to survive if he stayed in the military.

Although he loved the service, he says, he left on Feb. 29, 2007, after surviving a suicide attempt: He took a bunch of pills on a beach in Hawaii, where he was stationed. As he recovered in a military-hospital psych ward, for the first time in his life, he told someone he was gay.

"They asked me, 'Why are you depressed?' I told them; they wrote it down, but it was confidential. But I was relieved that someone knew, at least. That was a rough time," Bolden says.

When Bolden—who now works with troubled youth through the Intermountain Centers for Human Development—reflects on his time in the military, he also thinks about his difficult home life growing up in Maryland. His father was a minister in a church where Bolden sang in the choir, and there was domestic violence. Bolden says he realized he was probably gay and knew he could never be accepted at home.

"We had to put up a façade ... and hide who we were. I had to hide who I really was—and the fact that my family was screwed up, too," Bolden says.

He went into the military and continued to deny who he was. That became a bigger burden as he found his attraction to men growing stronger—and especially as he began his first relationship with a man.

With the expected repeal of DADT, Bolden says he's thought about returning to the Army now that he can officially be himself.

"Even though it was a bad experience hiding who I was, I still loved being there, the military itself. And I was good at it," Bolden says.

Still, he's not sure if he'd be out if he was in the service. Thomas, Lyon, Torres and Bolden all agree: In the early days post-DADT, it might be best to remain in the closet.

"I have mixed feelings. Just being in and seeing how people reacted to gay people kind of makes me worry about how it is going to go. You can change a law, but you can't change people. I can see violence happening because of this, and it is sad," Bolden says.

Thomas, who served on the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network's Military Advisory Council after she retired from the Air Force, says she recommends that LGBT service personnel remain in the closet at first, because it's unclear what will happen next.

However, she also knows that once the change is fully implemented, and openly gay people are allowed to serve "as they always have—with pride and distinction—then it will be hard for people to say they should be treated differently."

Even though Torres says he agrees with Bolden that there will be more violence—which may or may not be reported—as a result of the repeal, it's still a necessary change.

"I never thought I'd see this day, never in a million years, so I am very excited, but I am also concerned about the level of violence that is likely to take place, and what the commanders are going to do. It is still the right thing to do, because no one should be discriminated against, particularly when it is a voluntary force. People volunteer to serve their country. Every person who wants to serve and meets the criteria for service should be able to do so to the best of their abilities. Being gay is only a small part of who I am," Torres says.

The culture in the military will change, he says—but not right away.

"In the end, there will be higher unit morale and higher retention, because the worry is not there. The American people can rest at ease: We will, more than ever, have the best fighting force."