A Decade and One Year

After the “Witch Hunt” of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a Decade of Pride

by Deb Sinness, The War Horse
June 23, 2021

Before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” act were the “witch hunt” days of the military, where lives and careers were ruined by hints and suspicions. Gays lived deeply closeted lives, and I didn’t know a single gay person.

In 1976, Camp Pendleton, California, was my first duty station as a newly trained military police Marine. I was a 21-year-old private first class a long way from my small-town North Dakota roots.

Deb Sinness’s Marine Corps boot camp photo. Photo courtesy of the author.

One Sunday evening, I gathered uniforms to iron to get ready for the coming week. After I was set up in the female barracks ironing room, a Marine ambled into the room.

“Hey Copper, can I iron your shirt for you?”

I’d seen Bishop around the day room, and, according to the barracks scuttlebutt, the Marine Corps was booting her out for being gay.

“Um, no thanks, I’ve got it.”

Bishop didn’t take the hint. She found a molded plastic chair and plopped herself in it directly across from me. Bishop had short dark hair and wore a white T-shirt with green sateen uniform trousers. She shifted her position in the chair to a slouch, her eyes sizing me up. I felt uncomfortable in the heat of her glare.

“Sooo … I know a lot of cops, and a lot of them are gay. Are you?”

Bishop’s bold question shocked me. I was sexually naïve, didn’t date in high school, and rarely did after graduating. I thought my crummy luck with boys had to do with the scarlet letter I felt emblazoned on my forehead for having a mentally ill mother and divorced parents. Being gay wasn’t something that ever occurred to me.

In first grade, I had neighborhood sisters who taught me to pleasure myself and them, but I never had a crush on a girl and definitely didn’t think about dating them. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, there were disparaging whispers and jokes about certain people’s behaviors or mannerisms, but since I didn’t know anyone who was gay, same-sex relationships weren’t anything I could relate to.

Bishop’s question flustered me because I already felt “different.” What did she see in me that made her ask that question? It seemed inconceivable.

Sinness playing keyboard in a lesbian band called Sandy Mulligan and the Gypsies. Photo by Christine Cabrera, courtesy of the author.

 “Not me,” I mumbled, my face flushed. “Straight as an arrow.”

Though there was a hint of doubt in my sexually inexperienced mind, I made a mental note that if getting booted from the Marine Corps and being ostracized from everyone you knew was the price for being gay, I sure as hell was not about to pay it.

I ignored Bishop and focused on doing the best damn ironing job I could. She finally got bored watching me and walked away.

I never saw her again.

After that unsettling exchange, I resisted making close friends of female Marines, never quite knowing what their agenda might be.

After my four-year tour, I folded my uniforms, stored them in my seabag, and stowed my military memories in the bottom drawer of my psyche. I followed the traditional path of marriage to two different men for a total of 31 years.

Every time my small inner voice gave a nudge to the rainbow side of life, my socialized, conservative side said, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re happily married.”

After coming out, the author trained for and ran the 2015 40th Marine Corps Marathon to celebrate her 60th birthday.
Photo by Annie Sutherland, courtesy of the author.

When I turned 50, I began to reconnect with my military roots. I found a Marine I went through MP school with on the Together We Served website, and we arranged to have dinner together when I was in town. At the initial meeting, the years fell away and we were old Marine buddies sparring over whose boot camp platoon was better.

After a few visits over a three-year period, I tried to ignore the lurch my stomach made when I thought about my MP friend. What are you being weird about? You’re a married woman. It’s nothing.

After a May 2011 visit, I felt a jolt of attraction with a visceral shift in my body that I had never felt for a man. Suddenly everything seemed to come into sharper focus and make sense: It was about me and how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, not her. She was the catalyst.

I had a job with benefits. I’d started over before. I could do it again.

Two and a half weeks after returning from that trip, on the eve of my 27th wedding anniversary with my second husband, I left the marital home and moved into my daughter’s basement to start a new life. I wasn’t sure if I was making the biggest mistake of my life, but I knew leaving my marriage was the path of integrity.

As a military veteran, I came out as a competent, confident woman. I stepped into my new life knowing it would be an adjustment, but I made no apologies. If someone asked me tough questions about why I came out so late in life or about my former marriages, I didn’t shirk from awkward answers. I was proud of who I was, what I had accomplished, and who I was becoming.

Just four months later, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” act died on Sept. 20, 2011, ending the ban on gays serving in the military. With my mother’s mental illness, I had a lot to work through in my life and did not have the moral courage to come out sooner. That I came out the year “don’t ask, don’t tell” ended seemed like perfect synchronicity. It would take another six years to begin coming out of the “having a mentally ill mother” closet.

Editors Note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter

Coming Out Stories During Pride Month

I’ve attended Pride events large and small in the last decade, but nothing moved me more than Capital Pride last Saturday on the grounds of the North Dakota State Capital in Bismarck. This town I grew up and fled from, finally felt welcoming…and the rainbow cloud over the festivities confirmed that.

In preparation for Pride, a local bakery held a 100-word Pride story contest with prizes for first, second, and third places. Stories were submitted. Prizes were awarded. There was, however, no publication of the stories.

Our stories deserve to be told for we are your daughters, your sons, sisters, brothers, your mothers, fathers, and yes, even your grandparents.

My military-related coming out story was published Wednesday, 23 June on The War Horse. The following is my tiny personal coming out story…

“I’m Proud of My Gay Daughter”
said the pin I wore to my first pride event.
Daisy came out as bisexual in 2001 at 16.
Five years later, she dated a woman.
I worried for her career and safety.
Five years after that, I came out.
I had to start over…again.
When I broke the news,
Daisy tucked me under her wing.
At 56, I’d lived in many closets.
If Daisy hadn’t come out, I wouldn’t have either.
And that pin I wore to the 2011 Motor City Pride?
Daisy wore one that said
“I’m Proud of My Lesbian Mom.”

My Decade of Pride

Ten years ago, the evening before my 27th wedding anniversary, I came out. Although I had been faithful to my husband, I found myself oddly attracted to a woman so I finally came out to myself. I wasn’t sure if I was making the biggest mistake of my life, but I knew leaving my marriage was the path of integrity. Thankfully, the split was amicable. How amicable you ask? We went skydiving together for the first time three months later, weirdly something I never would have considered when we were married.

After the financial chaos of 2008, there wasn’t much to split. I didn’t make a lot of money as a secretary, but with benefits and my foot in the door, I knew I would be okay. I had done lots of hard things before. At times it wasn’t easy, but I persevered.

Looking back on the past 10 years, I’m humbled by the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, the places I’ve been, and I’m grateful for the opportunities that have come my way: living my rock star dream of playing in Sandy Mulligan and the Gypsies, going to 2012 Toronto World Pride, a trip down memory lane running 12 miles on Parris Island and attending the 69th Anniversary of women serving in the Marine Corps, running in Windsor, Canada and coming up through the tunnel and hearing my name announced in the Detroit Free Press International Half Marathon, having a Free Press photographer catch a snapshot of me celebrating marriage equality in Ann Arbor, realizing the dream of running the Marine Corps Marathon and having that journey published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Running For Good, and so many more memorable moments.

This year it’s about taking another leap of faith with retirement on the horizon…so cheers to the years and the new adventures to come. And in the end, all anyone wants in this world is to love and be loved.

Closets, Scarlet Letters & Memories

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I hate that it’s become a tool to divide our country, but I like keeping in touch with family and friends and I especially love seeing memories from years gone by pop up in my timeline. These are always a gentle reminder of where I used to be, and how far I’ve come.

Three years ago yesterday, I wrote the following post after a magical weekend of reconnection in Washington, DC with some fellow members of my high school band, (ironically organized through a stealth Facebook group):

DC Class of 73 cropped43 years ago when I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to get the hell of out dodge because I felt I had a scarlet letter tattooed on my forehead…my mother was mentally ill and was institutionalized at the state hospital. Few people knew and I didn’t let many people get close enough to me to find out, so high school was a pretty painful place for me. To the select people I’ve discussed my family situation with, I’ve said coming out of the closet for having a relative with a mental illness has been FAR more difficult than coming out of the closet as an older lesbian.

Fast forward to our 40th class reunion, it felt great to rekindle friendships and make new connections. Then a group of ~35 classmates, friends & family made a stealth plan to descend on DC the weekend of December 3rd to celebrate the season and the wonderful career of our classmate Army Colonel Tim Holtan, the Commander of “Pershing’s Own”. During the weekend, I reflected a lot on my journey…my military service, how band was my one high school joy, how proud I was of Tim’s success, and how tired I was of living in a closet. In short, the weekend was magical and I feel so very blessed to be a part of my beloved Class of ’73 family.

There, I said it publicly…closets & scarlet letters be damned.

I re-wrote that last line five times as tears were streaming down my face. I waited 10-15 minutes before I gathered up the courage to post on Facebook. Brené Brown describes describes the nausous feeling you have after disclosing something deeply personal as a vulnerability hangover. The old fear of judgment reared it’s ugly head and as was my habit, I wanted to delete the post and shrink away in shame. Not this time, I’m done, I reminded myself.

Five days later as I read the post comments and bathed in the love and support of family and friends, I was reminded of the power of sharing our stories. The truth does set us free, but there is still the hard work of untangling the emotions surrounding that truth.

Three years ago my post was behind the Facebook privacy wall. Now, it’s public. Closets and scarlet letters be damned.

 

Happy Coming Out Day

img_3280-1Eight years ago, after an amicable divorce, I came out quietly to a few close friends and family members. I was starting over and like Groundhog Day, had returned to my secretarial roots. I wasn’t sure what my life would look like, but the words stenciled above my bed in the basement bedroom of my daughter’s house reminded me every day I had made the right choice and finally faced a truth that I’d buried my entire life.

My daughter tucked me under her wing until I felt financially ready to get my own place. In the meantime, a therapist helped me navigate the changes in my life. During therapy one day, we talked a lot about coming out and she said because it’s a big deal, why shouldn’t people should have a party to celebrate, like a bat mitzvah or a quinceañera. So with my daughter and a few friends, I threw myself a coming out party on October 11, 2011. I wasn’t ready to announce it to the world, but it felt good to be seen for who I was.

Pride

A lot has changed in eight years. I’m fortunate to have been able to come out at a time when it’s socially acceptable and safe for me, unlike the Stonewall equality warriors of 50 years ago that generated a movement. With marriage equality, I now have the 1,138 rights and protections I enjoyed when I was married to a man. But we can’t take those rights for granted. We must remain vigilant and continue the fight for equality that began at that New York inn.

In the words of Barack Obama, “When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.”