While privately discussing the recent Palo and Homosexuality episode of Candelo’s Corner and the two posts here on Bones to Pick responding to it, Tata Walker brought up the fact that many paleros deal with the subject with a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. That struck a nerve for me.
Most of you probably remember hearing about a policy by that name implemented by the US Military from February 28, 1994 through September 20, 2011. For me, the experience was a bit more personal.
I’m a bisexual male. I’m currently 34, and I’ve known that I was bisexual for longer than I have had a word for it. I can very clearly remember the first time I consciously recognized a crush on another boy – the first day of fifth grade. I was 10 years old, I saw him from across the playground, and all I could think to myself was “Oh my god, he’s beautiful!”
It wouldn’t be for several more years, until I was thirteen, that I realized this represented something that made me different from other boys. It was then that I read the Herald-Mage Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and recognized myself in her fictional “Shay’a’chern”, in particular the character Vanyel. That would be how I thought of myself for a few more years, until I finally got on the internet in high school and found the real-world terminology to describe my sexual orientation. And even then, it would not be until close to the end of my senior year of high school, when I was 18, that I came out to anyone as bisexual and finally began my first relationship with another man. This was 1999.
During the summer of 1999, my father experienced heart failure and was hospitalized. At that time it was also discovered that he was an uncontrolled diabetic with a foot infection, one which required most of his big toe be amputated immediately. He was in the hospital for over a month, and on disability thereafter. It was a rough time for my family, and I made what I thought was the best choice possible to help them at the time. I enlisted in the US Army.
My recruiter must have had some pretty good gaydar, because he reassured me numerous times that nobody cared about sexual orientation anymore. He referenced the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy several times. Thing is? Recruiters lie.
My basic training was slated to be at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (or, as we not-so-affectionately referred to it, Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, Misery) in November. The very first day we arrived at Fort Leonard Wood we were told to sit down and watch some videos on the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These videos painted a very different picture than what I had been told by my recruiter. Rather than “don’t ask, don’t tell”, the real policy seemed to be “don’t ever get caught”. The videos detailed extensively what the penalties for being caught would be. Years in prison and a dishonorable discharge simply for kissing another man or holding his hand. Even more prison time for actual sex. And it was made very clear that this applied on base or off base, on duty or off duty, in or out of uniform, active or reserve.
Just dating my new boyfriend could get me put in prison. That wasn’t what I had signed on for.
Thankfully, not long after that, a way out presented itself. We were gathered together in an assembly and told that we all had one last chance, a “moment of truth”, to tell our commanding officer anything that we had not told our recruiters. I took that opportunity, and was granted an entry level discharge for “homosexual admission”. The actual process from that point on would take about a month, until early December.
Word spread fast. Comments were frequent and derisive. Marching cadences for my unit began including lines about meeting a “faggot” with my name. More than once I had to defend myself from physical assault.
It was that last that really started to change things. I’m 5′ even, and one of the people who assaulted me was one of the biggest guys in our unit. Each of his punches literally knocked me to the floor, but I kept getting up again. I had a black eye and a split lip the next day. But so did he. Neither of us reported the other. The assaults stopped. I’d earned some respect.
Not long after that, I tried something radical. I agreed to answer any question put to me about my sexuality. The questions that were asked made me realize just how sheltered a lot of my fellow recruits had been and how little they actually knew about gay or bisexual people. I answered everything from who in the unit I thought was the most attractive man, to why I had “chosen” to be gay (it’s not a choice), to questions about “gerbiling” (I’d never heard of it and needed them to tell me what it was) which they’d assumed was a typical gay sex act. No matter how ridiculous, I didn’t get offended. I just answered them. And people began to come around.
By the time my discharge went through, many of the people in my unit told me that I’d completely changed their views on gays. Including the guys who had assaulted me.
See, that’s the thing about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies, and how it relates back to Palo. These policies aren’t really about keeping gays and bisexuals out of the military, or out of Palo. Gays and bisexuals were already in the military long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was officially ended, and I guarantee they’re in more Palo houses than people know about or would admit to. What these policies are really about is keeping their presence invisible. Making it impossible to acknowledge or discuss their contributions. Making it impossible for people to get to know people who are gay within the religion, see the quality of their workings for themselves, and have their preconceptions challenged. Making it impossible for queer paleros to earn the respect of their peers.
We see this even in the episode of Candelo’s Corner I mentioned at the start of this essay. While people mentioned knowing gay paleros, not one gay or bisexual palero nor the godparents of any gay or bisexual palero were present for that discussion. Instead, the debate was between paleros whose houses exclude gays on one side and neopagans on the other. Rendering actual queer paleros invisible all over again.