I’m a proud veteran who happens to be gay

Jonathan Kaupanger
June 01, 2018 - 10:34 am

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I’m a gay man who never came out. I never thought it was necessary and to be totally honest, until everyone else has to do it, why should I?  And let’s be real here, is my sexuality all that interesting? 

Today, starts Pride month, and I always struggle with this one. I’m proud of who I am, but was brought up to not be overtly proud about anything. Strangely enough, I didn’t start feeling proud about being gay until I was in the military. 

I joined the Navy in the late 80’s, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  I don’t remember much about the day I had my initial swearing in, except for one part. It happened in a large room that was filled with desks. I sat at a desk in the middle of the room.  The man behind it asked me if I was gay. I said I was not. He had a big bible on his desk and I had to swear on that bible that I was in fact straight. I started my military career with a lie and that scared the crap out of me too.

My mother was a Pentecostal preacher, so I was very comfortable hiding my gayness. Maybe comfortable isn’t the correct word, but I was used to passing for straight. Just change a pronoun here and there. I made sure I never missed an episode of Charlie’s Angels. I always had friends who were girls around me, so of course people assumed they were girlfriends. In fact, my freshman year of high school I “stole” my brother’s girlfriend. (The reality of it was that she quickly realized he was a jerk and I was not.)  People tend to believe what they want, and I just let them.

My parents knew I was gay, but decided they would pray that out of me. It was never discussed except for the random, “being gay is an abomination to God,” comment. The plan was that I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a preacher myself. If you knew me you’d be laughing your ass off right now.

We lived in central California, in farming community that was boring, flat and very heterosexual. As soon as I had a car I started doing community theater. It was only then when I realized that there were other people like me in the world. I could be who I was and no one cared. But then I’d drive home and everyone cared.

Lying to the Navy only bugged me because I had experienced a small taste of freedom by that point. I knew there were people out there who were very comfortable around me. The military just didn’t seem like it would be a very open place for me to thrive, but I wanted to serve my country. I needed to serve my country.

What I found was no one was really concerned in my sexuality. My first boss was the type of straight guy who knew that having gay guys around him only meant less competition with women. My second boss introduced me to chocolate cheesecake and dove bars – you can’t care about someone’s sexuality over a chocolate cheesecake.

Next duty station was more of the same...the military was more accepting of me than my own family. But that’s when it really hit me, the military had become my family. 

Still, before those magic four words became law, I had to hide part of myself. Which thinking about it, I have to laugh because hiding was never my strong point.  I’ve never met a color or sequin that I didn’t like. I like unique clothes and would often stroll down the base wearing a top hat, boxer shorts and a tailcoat. People would question friends or coworkers about me and the response was always the same, “oh, that’s just Jonathan.” I only heard about these comments much later because everyone had my back. I had a family.

I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember if any time during my time in the Navy someone made me feel bad about being gay. The funny part of this is that the first time someone tried to cause trouble for me over my sexuality was just before DADT kicked in.  And I mean days before it did. He kept pushing, but it was too late. The law changed and he had to stop asking me about it. 

Still, it took another 21 years before I was allowed the same rights as every other Americans. And as it turned out, I was with a bunch of veterans when the decision from the Supreme Court was announced, too. We were in Gettysburg, PA – on the battlefield which seemed very fitting to me, shooting the American Veteran TV show for Veterans Affairs. Everyone was so happy. I cried. I had served my country in two ways by then, in the military and as a civil servant at the VA. I didn’t realize how much pent up emotion I had on the issue. 

Looking at my celebrating coworkers, it suddenly hit me - the rest of the country had finally caught up with the military! Sure some were forced to this point, but the people around me didn’t care. 

Sadly, my parents never did come around.  When I wanted them to meet my husband, it was just too much for them and they cut me from their lives. I’ve never admitted this publicly before, but I wasn’t allowed at either of their funerals. They never had the chance to meet my husband Bil who’s the most interesting, caring, smart, handsome and loving person I’ve ever met.

My military family though has had the complete opposite reaction – they WANT to meet Bil. And on the few occasions when I would show up without Bil, the disappointment was massive. They wanted to meet the man who finally made me happy!

I was very young when my grandmother taught me that one should be accepting and respectful to others, always. I know some people don’t like months like Gay Pride, Women’s History Month or even Black History Month – to some it’s wrong to push all of this into just one month. I get that completely, but let me give you a different way of looking at it. I love parties. I can throw a great party and to me, these special months are just that, one big, fat party!

This month I get to interview and write about other gay veterans and help tell their stories. I also get to brag some on what the VA has going for LGBT veterans. 

Its Gay Pride month but my pride is projected outwards. Out to my military family who taught me that it was very much okay to just be myself and if I’m gay – who cares, that’s just Jonathan.

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