I think there were seven witnesses, but I remember only four distinct faces.
We were sitting in a waiting room of the Judge Advocate General’s building of Naval Base Kitsap on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula. Inside the courtroom, there were high ceilings, brass fixtures, flags, pews for spectators, and wooden jury benches that rose up like stadium seating. Men in dress uniform stood as sentinels at every exit and by every important figure present.
But the waiting room for us witnesses was an unadorned office with a long meeting table. The room was tense. It was the kind of atmosphere that when someone inhaled too deeply, it sent every other occupant into some sort of physical reaction: a cough, a repositioning of a chair, a quick lap around the long table. All of the others were straight men, except for my ex-boyfriend and I. Every man in the room had been a victim of sexual assault except me.
We’d been in the waiting room for more than a week because the trial was restricted to a nine-to-five schedule. Sailors are issued only one pair of dress blues—our most formal uniform—and after a week of fearful waiting, the smell was intense. We were told not to talk among ourselves about the ongoing trial, taking place down a hallway with marble floors. Randomly, a court emissary would come into the room, state a name, and escort that individual to the courtroom. The face that would return to the room would be profoundly changed, but no one was allowed to say anything about what they experienced. We searched the lines of each other’s faces, trying to communicate without speech, trying to assuage the trepidation, the shame.
We had been primed for silence, trained efficiently. When I was in boot camp, in Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago in 2003, the chief in charge of my battalion used to stand at the entrance to the large open shower rooms and watch us. He was in power. We were nothing and had no one to complain to.
There were murmurs of him doing more than just watching. He began to pick his favorites. One evening during the period of time when we were required to iron our tighty-whities into perfectly creased squares, the chief called me into his office. It was situated at the front of the large barracks, with a window that allowed him to look out and watch us. Through that window, he could see everything we did.
When I entered his office, he directed me to sit under the window, on the floor, positioning me so that no one outside could see me. Once I was in the spot, he handed me a cookie and told me to eat it. I didn’t know what to make of this request, but I did as I was told. He watched me as he sat in a chair, a strange expression on his face. He leaned back, his eyes gazing downward at me. When I was released back to the ranks, the guys were concerned, asking me what had happened in there. I told them I had eaten a cookie, but their concern didn’t abate. He continued to call me into his office in the evenings, always a cookie on hand.
Then some middle-management petty officers caught him doing something overtly wrong—leering at a lone man in the shower—and they reported him. He was relieved of his position as our lead, but he kept his rank and was put in charge of another unit. Our petty officers apologized to us and said that his conduct was not fitting with their core values. Still, not one of us had a voice in that scenario. Even as the issue got rectified, we were kept silent.
It was only later that I realized what it looked like from the outside of the chief’s office as he sat in front of his desk and I ate his cookie on the floor. All you would have been able to see through the window was him leaning back in his chair, a strange expression on his face, his arms lifted to cradle his head in his hands, his eyes looking down at me.
I never heard about him again after they sent him to the new division, and there was no mention of him possibly being gay. The official policy of the US military was still “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Back in the waiting room outside the trial, I’m reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The year is 2007. In the midst of all this drama, the book is giving me perspective, taking me elsewhere, making me feel less defined by the hapless narrative of this trial and part of the bigger tides of history.
My ex, Danny, breaks the monotonous silence.
“I wish I would have brought a book myself,” he says. “I can’t imagine I’ll ever read one that big, though.”
I drop the massive book onto the table with a loud thud. We laugh. There, for a moment, is the face of the man I fell for—gregarious, electric, alive. Too soon, it’s gone.
“You’re going to write something really important one day, Lance.” Danny’s words produce thunderhead clouds in my chest. “Will you write something about me?”
“I’ll try,” I say, attempting to keep from crying.
I find it almost ironic that he is asking me to become a witness again, sometime in the future, by writing about him, about this. He didn’t want me to speak up in the first place.
We were in Malaysia when he told me about the assault, told me never to tell. But I was young and idealistic, and I could not be silent. I confronted the accused. His only words were “I’m sorry.” I took that as an admission of guilt, and when he later threatened my life if I told anyone, I was confident in the assumption that he was guilty.
For five months after that, I didn’t say anything. I asked Danny why he didn’t want to come forward. He said he was ashamed that it had happened to him. It made him feel weak. He didn’t want anyone on our ship to know about it. I understood, and I dutifully held that secret. But months later, when our ship sailed back to the Pacific Northwest, I was called to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and was specifically questioned about my interaction with the accused. Caught off guard, and relieved to offload this growing secret, I told them everything that had happened. The kind NCIS agent assured me that I was doing the right thing.
Turns out, there were other guys on the ship who had come forward with similar stories. It seemed the accused had a pattern. The agent said she couldn’t tell me details, but what had happened to Danny had happened to others.
The accused was not the same guy as the chief who made me eat the cookies. But he also had a leadership position and was a pivotal figure in each new sailor’s indoctrination into the ship. They had to perform well under his leadership before they were allowed to be an official part of the crew. Often he made quick friends with the young sailors. This friendship turned into nights out drinking. For Danny, and for the others, a drunken night out would end with the young men passed out. And then, later, according to their accounts, they would wake up in the middle of the night with the accused performing sexual acts on them against their will.
The NCIS agent told me that my account was a pivotal piece of the prosecution, that the death threats were an admission of guilt. But to me, my involvement doesn’t seem substantial, and it’s predicated on a promise I made to Danny, that I broke. That makes sitting in the waiting room all the more excruciating. I sit here in a cloud of doubt. I know so little about this trial, and yet I am stuck in the middle of it.
It’s my turn to testify. The shame. The uncertainty.
I’m escorted into the regal courtroom, with a full cast of the highest brass in the US Navy. The sheer sight of all the ribbons and insignia puts me into a cave in my own mind. I want to hide, to be anywhere else other than here, to go back in time and not have said anything to anyone.
The prosecuting attorney goes over my testimony quickly. For the first time in my military career, I get the opportunity to speak out publicly.
Then the defense attorney begins his cross-examination. To my disbelief, he doesn’t go after my meager involvement in the case. He doesn’t try to dissuade the jury that the defendant made threats against my life. He doesn’t even go into the hearsay quality of what I know about my ex-boyfriend’s victimhood.
His voice is calm and direct. He asks, “What is your relationship with the other witness in your testimony?”
“He’s my ex-boyfriend.”
“Was this relationship active during your enlistment in the United States Navy?”
“So you openly admit that you are in breach of the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you aware that you are breaking the law?”
The faces of the jury sharpen into focus. I had vaguely feared I would be kicked out for my testimony because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but there were more important issues at hand, like serial sexual assault. It hadn’t occurred to me that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would become the central focus of my testimony.
Sitting there on the witness stand, I am frozen, and the flashbacks come.
At the beginning of my enlistment in the navy, a few weeks before the start of the hardest part of SEAL training, my buddies and I went to a mall in San Diego to get some R&R. The Southern California sun was something I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. Now I was 19. I went to grab some frozen yogurt with one of the guys while the rest of the crew went to get some burgers at the other end of the food court. My buddy said he needed to buy something, so I sat alone. The perfect embodiment of the California surfer walked up to me.
“Hey, dude.” His blond hair contrasted with the depth of his tan. He had perfect white teeth.
“Hey, dude,” I said back to him.
His smile set me at ease. “How’s it going?” He got a bit closer to me as he talked. He was warm and friendly, an athlete in incredible shape. His shirt sat on his body like a jersey on a football player’s shoulder pads.
“Not bad, just hanging with some friends.” I looked around for them. The surfer didn’t look away from me. “What about you?”
“Just chilling. I saw you from across the way. Couldn’t keep my eyes off you. Damn, dude, you’re hot.”
I was so flattered, I didn’t know what to say. I felt the urge to kiss him. My stomach fluctuated. This was the first time a man had ever hit on me, and a guy of his caliber was beyond my daydreams. I got lost in his blue eyes. Damn. I felt a little light-headed.
Then the alarm bells started going off. I looked around for my friends. Were they watching this? Shit.
“Can I take you out to dinner, bro?” the guy said, getting closer to me. He was about to put his arm around my shoulder.
I backed away.
“It’s okay, dude, I know you want it. I want you, too,” he said.
Too far, too fast. Something was not right. I backed away without saying a word. I walked fast. I walked until I could see my cohort standing in a group on the other side of the food court. They were laughing among themselves. I walked up and stood outside the circle, not sure what they were laughing about. I didn’t say anything. I was trying desperately to figure out what had just happened.
“What happened to you?” one of the guys asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He snickered and put his hand on my shoulder.
At that moment, the mystery man, the surfer with the tan and the perfect teeth, walked toward the group. Shit! This was not good. What would I say? How would I explain this?
He got closer, and one of my closest friends in the group said, “I want you to meet my friend Nate.”
Total confusion. I had no words. His friend? What? Why on earth would his friend want to take me out to dinner and say all those things? Accepting an invitation like that could be enough to get me kicked out of the military.
Nate reached his hand out to mine, grabbed it, and shook it. “Nice to meet you.” He smiled, came to my side, and put his arm around my shoulder. He pulled me into his huge chest and his slightly musty odor.
“See, I told you he’s not gay!” said Brian, a friend from boot camp, as if repeating it for the umpteenth time.
The group laughed again, but I still didn’t get it. Didn’t say anything. Nate kept his arm around me, as if in some strange form of protection. He was still smiling. Looking deeply at me. Warmly.
“I asked Nate to hit on you. Had to make sure you weren’t gay, bro.”
“It’s ’cause you’re so fucking gay, Garland.”
“He’s not gay, dude, he’s from Seattle. It’s just how they are,” Brian said.
“It’s cool, bro, I got you.” Nate squeezed me into him. The warm dampness of his armpit was like a cave I wanted to recede into. I didn’t say a word.
Back in the courtroom, the defense attorney raises his voice to grab my attention, to force my words.
“Are you aware that you are breaking the longstanding military policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?”
The faces of the jury are like floodlights on me. I’m sweating profusely. As the accused’s defense attorney highlights all the ways I am depraved and out of line and not to be trusted, as he stokes hatred of gay people into fiery expressions on the faces of the jury, I realize that Danny was right. I never should have spoken up. My witnessing is a failure here. Not only is the story I thought I was coming here to tell not being heard, I am being attacked for something I cannot change about myself.
I stare at the faces of the jury, as if trying to memorize them, because I sense that they contain something, a secret, a truth that I will need later as I try to make sense of this whole debacle. They look like a mob of vengeful faces—except for one. I come across one kind expression. It is as if he is filled with shame over what he is here to do, what he is now a part of. He’s unable to offer anything other than this apologetic look, but at least it’s something.
“I repeat the question, for the third time, are you—”
After all of my insistence on telling the truth about what happened to Danny, it never occurs to me to lie.
“Yes,” I say.
Back to the waiting room.
The next day, Danny disappears into the courtroom to give his testimony. I try to lie with my facial expression, to encourage him and send some positivity his way. We’re not allowed to talk about my testimony, but now I know what he is up against. And for him, the courtroom will be so much worse.
After he leaves, I sit there filling with anger—an anger that will take years to diminish. My inability to cope eventually leads, years later, to seeing a therapist. In therapy, I find out that victims of sexual assault are known to experience symptoms of PTSD throughout their lives. The therapist tells me about how much more likely LGBTQ people are to have substance abuse issues and become homeless, precisely because of unfair systems and policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The shame that I feel at that moment in the waiting room—shame for adding to the weight of my ex’s struggle—grows for years, into a gnarled and twisted vine that extends through so many areas of my life.
When Danny comes back into the waiting room, he looks physically changed, unfamiliar. He was the last witness. Though the tension of the room is gone, it’s muggy, and we sit in a swamp of resignation.
The verdict. All of the witnesses, the men who’ve been assaulted, are allowed to go into the courtroom for the reading, but only my ex and I elect to go. I sit next to him. This is the closest we’ve been physically since his great breakdown, and our subsequent breakup. The accused is acquitted on all but the smallest of charges. If the emotional haze of memory serves me right, he was found guilty of fraternization—when a superior has unprofessional involvement with subordinates. A charge like that was considered so minor, it was normally handled in-house and would never, on its own, make it all the way to a court-martial. As punishment, the accused has to retire a few months sooner than planned, with full benefits.
I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive myself for subjecting my ex to that terror. The visceral pain of my own experience was no comparison to the injuries he suffered, both in the initial assault and in the experience of that trial.
I wrote a novel to try to atone for my sin of bearing witness, to attempt to make something beautiful from the ashes—a novel about the downsides of telling the truth. It’s called Second Class Sailors, and you can buy it on Amazon. It sits there, obscure. He read it, though, and he sent me a kind email, thanking me for the telling.
In it, I gave him the name Danny, which is the same name I’m giving him again in this essay. For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to tell his story. I’ve been afraid to tell it, afraid of the repercussions, of what I’d lose from the telling. So much has been lost already. Would the telling affect my career? Would it affect Danny’s career even more than the trial did? Would the accused really try to kill me? All this fear, and I wasn’t even the one who was assaulted.
After the conclusion of the trial, we made our separate ways back to the mainland. He was headed to Everett, to finish out his enlistment at a shore duty station. I was headed to Seattle, and back to the ship in Panama to finish my last deployment.
The one lucky thing that happened to us is that we were each able to finish our enlistments and voluntarily leave with honorable discharges before someone had time to dishonorably discharge us with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We could have reenlisted, but the policy could have been used against us at any moment because of our testimonies. As my therapist said, “Sounds like eviction to me.”
As Danny and I waited in line for the ferry, we grabbed coffee. Most of these moments were spent in silence, our mode. The ferry bells called us back to our cars, and I lunged for the chance to say something of worth.
“No amount of apology could ever....”
“You did”—his voice cracked as he attempted to control it—“the right thing.”
My eyes welled up. We turned to make our way back to our separate cars.
“Lance?” The word came out like a question, and I turned back toward him. He was maybe 15 feet away. “Thank you.”
In the belly of the ferry, the windows of my car steamed up from the added humidity.
I haven’t seen him since.
Brian—the friend from boot camp, the one who said, “He’s from Seattle, it’s just how they are” during that smoke-out at the food court—sent me a text. He happened to be in Seattle, had a few hours, and wanted to meet up. It had been a decade since I’d seen him. We met at Din Tai Fung in Pacific Place—coincidentally, another mall food court.
“Dude,” he said. “You’re like a firefighting Hemingway, traveling the world and becoming an author.” In addition to writing the novel, I had become a firefighter—the first openly gay firefighter in the city of Seattle, as far as I know.
Brian’s words came like a validation: I’d succeeded past a dark time, and now a friend from the darkness was praising what I’d done since.
After I was honorably discharged from the service, I sought ways to fight “don’t ask, don’t tell.” While I was studying creative writing at the University of Washington, the unforeseeable happened: The Obama administration repealed the policy. That was a strange, happy, bittersweet day. It felt like emerging out of a long tunnel into the light of day. Atonement. Justice. Repeal was the start of a healing process. Only then did I realize how deep the injury had been. Repeal also gave me courage, and the belief that things can change if we stand up, and I joined the marriage-equality movement, in which more unforeseeable things were about to happen.
As for Brian, since our time in the service together, he’d racked up accomplishments of his own, including becoming a New Yorker and an Ivy League grad. As we sat in the restaurant, we talked about the guys we’d trained with. We kept tossing out names. Kept sharing what we knew about where they ended up. Then out came Nate’s name—the guy who pretended to hit on me in that food court. I didn’t say anything, lost in thought.
“You know, they were all really good guys,” Brian said. I saw something in his eyes, something like apology. “It was a different time.”
It felt like this was his apology on behalf of the group. His acknowledgement extended out like an offering, and I was grateful for it, especially because there was something else in his eyes, too, something like admiration.
When I look back, there is that unshakable feeling that things would have been better had I never spoken up. At least Danny would have only been injured once, in private. Instead, my witnessing made him a casualty of war, subjecting him not only to reliving the assault, but also killing his prospects. He could have had a long military career, would have made a fine chief boatswain’s mate, perhaps even a master chief. If the trial had never happened, maybe he would have stayed in. There is no way to know. But after confronting such a massive force against his existence, it’s no wonder that he left as soon as humanly possible.
There is no consolation for him. I forced him to speak up in a time when it wasn’t allowed, and he paid for it. Even though I haven’t seen him in a long time, I did confirm by email recently that he was okay with me telling his story here.
Lately I’ve been reliving these memories in the context of #MeToo. The reason the movement is so powerful is because it is giving a voice to women who’ve been previously silenced, by a variety of factors. The chorus of voices suggests that justice is possible and that there is healing in solidarity. I am humbled by the vulnerability of anyone with the courage to say “This happened to me,” but that courage is only the beginning of the process. For years in the military, that process of healing was not only rare—it was forbidden. Even before President Bill Clinton implemented “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 1994, the military’s long-standing culture of conservatism and secrecy meant these things simply were not discussed. We will never know how many people in uniform have untold stories of being assaulted and silenced.
If there were ever a thing to hope, if there could be any retroactive validation for the trials Danny and I faced, it would be to hope that we nurtured the possibility of a world where others could speak up about sexual assault and be heard.