I enlisted in the U.S. Army right out of high school and served from 2016 to 2018. I came from a progressive town in Oregon and my high school had a Queer Straight Alliance club. That isn’t to say there wasn’t homophobia and transphobia present, but that there was a safe space where I could discuss my identity and seek support on my journey of understanding myself. I came out at 16 and, while I experienced bi erasure because I’m pretty femme and had boyfriends, I was mostly accepted by my peers. Needless to say, I was confident in being out and could manage the biphobia I did experience because I had such a solid support group. Unfortunately, the army pushed me right back into the closet.
Not to get too much into the sexist culture, but I faced a lot of sexual harassment because I was a young, feminine-presenting woman. Most guys assumed I was straight, and I rarely mentioned being bi after a few of my co-workers, on different occasions, asked if I wanted to have a threesome with them and their girlfriends or other women. I was privileged in the sense that I could hide my queerness. Yet, doing so forced me to either avoid dating altogether or only date men to avoid harassment and potential violence, as the army has a toxic rape culture. As a result, I buried my feelings for anyone who wasn’t a man.
This isn’t even getting into the disturbing transphobia I witnessed and tried to stamp out either. In 2016, trans folks were allowed to be out while serving in the military and receive healthcare to assist their transition. Most of my peers were against this, not to mention many politicians. Speaking up for trans people made my co-workers question me. It brought up fear of being outed because someone might try to figure out if I was queer myself since I was very passionate and outspoken about transphobia. They asked why I cared so much, and I had to withhold that trans people were in my community and that I was bisexual. Instead, I told them that I believe that trans rights are human rights, which I do. Yet, it’s not the whole truth. I have trans friends. My sexual orientation isn’t limited to any gender identity or presentation, and I’d had crushes on trans binary and non-binary folks as well. So, it was related to belonging to the community, as well as feeling like friends and former and potentially future partners were being targeted. How could I hear all of this transphobic rhetoric being weaponized to target trans people?
Of course, the army has a program to report instances of discrimination. It’s called Equal Opportunity (E.O.), and any experience of racism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia from one soldier to another was to be reported through that. Yet, just like the army’s sexual harassment and assualt program, it was highly ineffective. There were a few E.O. investigations occurring at my unit during the year I was there, and none of them resolved any ongoing racism and sexism that I knew of that was happening at my company. I had no faith in the system due to some other personal experiences with it that I’m not sharing here.
The attacks on trans rights were terrifying, not just on a personal level, but also on a societal one. It was only in 2011 that lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks could serve and be out. If trans folks were refused the right to serve their country, when would they remove the LGB right to serve? Both of these policies were instituted during the Obama era, so when was the Trump administration going to revoke my right to serve? Was I going to have a general, or even dishonorable discharge for being bisexual? If this were to happen it wouldn’t just cost me a military career, but also other employment opportunities. A discharge status other than honorable carries a strong negative connotation, and all veterans have to include this on job applications. This would force LGB people to either go back in the closet or struggle to recover from severe discriminatory policies, possibly for the rest of their lives. It is naive to think that it would just stop at trans folks’ rights. All LGBTQ+ folks are affected by any legislation or policy that targets one group, and I wasn’t the only one to express fear.
During my time in the service, there weren’t any support groups or spaces for LGBTQ+ service members to meet up. As an individual you seek out queer friends, and one of my good friends was a lesbian. She got a lot of my anxieties and frustrations, and she herself had enlisted after the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed. She had her own experiences of homophobic discrimination and I admired her staying in so long despite the mistreatment, disrespect, and prejudice she had to take. It was incredibly helpful to have her as a friend.
Things may have changed in the two years since I’ve been out of the army, but I doubt it. The barriers for trans folks have only gotten worse, and that signals an attack on all LGBTQ+ rights. One may think that this exists in a vacuum, but this administration has attempted to repeal our access to healthcare, jobs, emergency services like homeless shelters, and adoptions; and the discrimination that service members and veterans have faced is just an extension of that. There is an overall attack on our rights to be full humans and citizens, and one that leads to severe consequences for our community.
I’m currently in college, and I’m a member of my college’s LGBTQ+ club. A few weeks after I joined, I realized how much having a space for our community was vital for my social well being. I’m hopeful that someday, when I enter the workforce, I won’t have any experiences like what happened in the army. Additionally, if I do, I’ll be able to report it to the human resources department and get it corrected, as well as prevent further discrimination and prejudice from appearing in my workplace. I don’t think anything will ever be as bad as what I went through in the army, but to be a young adult (17-19 years old) and have to feel so cut off from who you are is quite isolating. It forced me to avoid my queerness for years. I’m grateful for my current social network and my therapist for the support and space I have to process and heal from these experiences. It makes me worried about how many LGBTQ+ service members are out there, living in such an oppressive environment, and having to deny their true selves in order to survive.
Aurora is a sophomore at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and is currently working on transfer applications and figuring out her major. When not busy with school, she enjoys hiking or working on art, which you can find at www.instagram.com/indistinct.aurora.