When I was nine or ten, I attended school in Massachusetts. Constantly competing with California for the most liberal state in the Union, it’s no surprise we had an openly gay teacher. As a child I did not truly understand what gay meant. I knew it wasn’t the norm but the only gay person I knew was that teacher. He was a flamboyant man, wearing tight clothes, high-pitched voice, and feminine mannerisms. I also knew the older students insulted him for being gay. Up until the point where I myself came out, this would be my only experience and knowledge of what being gay was. Funny that the memories of him would cause me to fear myself, but now his actions are so un-important that I can’t remember his name or what subject he taught.
By fourteen I was positive I was gay, and this realization scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be a different person and I wanted a family some day and so many other things I thought I would never be able to do as a gay man. I decided the best thing to do would be talk to my sister. So one night I waited in her room for her and when she got off work, we sat on her bed and I explained to her what I was feeling and what I thought and all my fears and worries about liking other men. That I would turn out like that teacher and everyone would know who I was and mock me, that I could never have kids if I didn’t have a wife, that my family would look down on me and be disappointed in me, that I would change into something I didn’t like. She wasn’t able to see my tears because I was too embarrassed to let her turn on the lights, but she could hear me trying to choke them back. I was confused enough about what was happening that I thought my sister, and a lesbian, would feel differently about me because I was gay. After I was done talking my sister wrapped me in a hug and started to speak. She told me, “Whether you’re gay or straight, you’re you. Nothing can change that, only add to it. Being gay doesn’t define you as a person.” It was the best thing she could have said to me and for the last nine years has held true.
At fifteen I decided it was time to fully admit to myself who I was and to tell my family. I remember standing in the kitchen with my mom while she washed some pots and pans in the sink. I thought coming out to her first would be the easiest since at this point my eldest brother and my only sister had been out for years. I was wrong. Although to this day she denies the conversation, the first words out of her mouth when I told her were the most heartbreaking she has ever said to me. The conversation was short and simple.
“Mom, we need to talk, it’s important.”
“What’s wrong Brad?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom, I just want to let you know I’m gay.”
I don’t know if it was the silence and look of disappointment or the next words that hurt more.
“My god, what did I do wrong?”
I couldn’t handle that; I had disappointed my mother and she thought something that I was starting to accept as a big part of me was wrong. I spent that night at a friend’s house and when I came home the next day my mom acted like she never said that and that I had never left the house in tears.
My junior year of high school I gathered the courage to do something I wanted to do for years, join the wrestling team. Although I ended my regular season with a losing record, I loved wrestling. To me, it was, and still is, the epitome of sports, a one-on-one match of skill and strength, no one else to blame if you lose and no one else to share your victories with. I loved this sport so much that I separated my shoulder and then ignored doctor’s orders in order to compete in the last home match of the season. Even as I write this I can feel a throb starting in my shoulder that I know will soon turn to pain. After the regular season I started to compete in the off-season. Now, instead of facing off against other schools, I was competing in open matches, wrestling people of all ages and experiences as long as they were in my weight class. However, it was also around this time that I decided to come out at school as well. About three weeks after coming out to my fellow classmates, I competed in the ISU Redbird Open. I wrestled against eleven other men, the oldest being a thirty-year-old coach. I took third place in that meet, was awarded a medal which I still have, and never wrestled again. The Monday after the meet, I was stopped by my coach heading to practice. He explained to me that he didn’t care that I was gay and that most people on the team didn’t either. He also explained that he heard word from other coaches that their athletes didn’t feel the same. Since wrestling is, by its very nature, a violent sport, the risk of accidental injury is high, and the possibility of intentional injury easy. My coach informed me that other wrestlers were talking about intentionally hurting me, breaking bones, trying to concuss me and various other injuries if they got on the mat with me. Although my coach couldn’t kick me off the team for being gay, he strongly advised I stopped wrestling, advice I reluctantly took. That night I grabbed my medal I was so proud of and put it in a drawer.
My senior year, my friend convinced me to come along while he spoke to a National Guard recruiter. Although he was almost immediately turned off by the idea of the military, I was fascinated by the Guard. Every generation of my family has served since coming to the country during the Civil War, and it was always something I had thought about but never strongly considered. After several meetings with the recruiter, taking a test and securing my MOS, I was ready to enlist. One thing was in the way though, a nagging worry that I had to bring up with him, how can I be a soldier and a gay man? At this time DADT was still in full force and thousands were being discharged every year for being homosexual. My recruiter’s answer to my question made me almost not join the Guard. “You can’t.” He explained that I could either be gay or I could be a soldier but that in today’s military there was no room for both. Would I hide who was and pretend for the next six years at least, probably twenty, to be something I wasn’t in order to serve the country I love or would I decide that being true to myself was more important. This debate caused many sleepless nights until finally I decided that first and foremost I am an American, and I would happily put everything else on the side to serve my country. Six years later and a re-enlistment for six more years and I still think about that decision. I truly love being a soldier and cannot see a day in my life where I will wake up and no longer be one, but is pretending really worth it?
The Road to War
Immediately after basic training, I volunteered and was transferred to my sister company to go to Iraq. For the eight months I would be training closely with these people preparing for a long and dangerous deployment, at times spending a month cooped up in a barracks and out in the field with them. Although the mission was eventually cancelled and we were told to stand down, it wasn’t before I truly realized the decision I had made. There is a common saying in the Army, one I heard multiple times while in basic and have heard plenty of times since, but none with such meaning as when I heard it that day on the drill floor, “It’s better for a gay to die than a soldier to live.” Simply put being gay is bigger than being a soldier and if we know you’re gay we’ll let you die for it rather than try and save you for being our brother. I had put up with the gay jokes, even made some myself, the mocking and the homophobia, but that statement was like a knife in the back. These were men I was about to deploy with, willing to risk my life for to keep them alive and trusting that they’d do the same for me. Now however, I saw that that wasn’t the case. That if they found out one part of my life the rest of it wouldn’t matter and they wouldn’t have my back. Part of being a soldier is a sense of brotherhood, I can go anywhere in the world, find a US soldier, and automatically have a connection and bond with them, but at that moment, I had never felt more alone.
A few years later the orders finally came through. I was going to Afghanistan. This time with my home company, soldiers I’d served alongside for five years. Being in a warzone is an experience that can’t be described to those who haven’t been there and to those who have it needs no description. But for me it was different. You place your full and complete trust in these people and they know every aspect of your life. They know your personal problems, your home life, your goals and your fears. But for me there was still one thing I was afraid to tell them. I could put my life in their hands and was willing to die for them and to kill for them but even still, I couldn’t tell them I was gay. About halfway through the deployment I was checking my email when a soldier got behind me and read my inbox. In there was an email from a gay dating website. Although I hate him for reading my email and finding out about me, I am also incredibly thankful. He didn’t care that I was gay, I was still the same person, and he agreed to keep my secret. It was his indifference to the situation that gave me the courage to come out to two other soldiers, friends I had developed a closer than usual bond with. Again their indifference, and the fact that they treated me exactly the same, has given me a new hope in the Army. It allows me to look at the next six years of service and realize that, although it won’t happen soon, I may one day be able to be completely honest with the men and women I call my family.
While talking to a friend the other day, one of the soldiers I deployed with and came out to, I realized something about being gay. Something my sister had explained years ago and I accepted it, but I suppose I never fully understood. For me being gay is like my tattoos. When looking at me you can see one tattoo and that’s it. The rest are covered, not hidden, because I didn’t get tattoos for other people, I got them for me and me alone. Just like being gay, sure people have guessed sometimes that I might be gay, and like my tattoos, I won’t deny it if asked, but being gay is for me. It’s a part of me and it influences my life and my decisions but at the end of the day it isn’t everything I am. The world doesn’t need to see it because I know it’s there and that’s good enough.
Bradley Burgess is a twenty-three year old freshman studying History with a minor in secondary education at Western Illinois University. In addition to his studies, he works part time at a bar during the day as a janitor and at a different club on the weekends as a bouncer. He was born in raised in Tyngborough, MA and moved to Illinois when he was thirteen, living in central, northern, and western Illinois in that time. He enlisted in the Army National Guard when he was seventeen and has served six years, including a deployment to Afghanistan, and recently re-enlisted for another six years.