As someone who was discharged before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was law, I have an axe to grind with those who claim gays and lesbians can’t control themselves in any environment. I served onboard submarines as evidenced by my poem, “Sub Sailor’s Views on Glasnost,” that is featured in a Smithsonian’s museum exhibit on submarine duty in the Cold War.
I believe the most poignant part of my story is I was ordered by my executive officer to be the Protestant Lay Reader, or “volunteer preacher,” on the submarine while we were on patrol in the North Atlantic. My journey to become the preacher was circuitous because, although I had offered to play the keyboards for the services, I did not want to be the protestant pastor. I was worried I might some day be discovered as being gay, and I didn’t want my judgment or motivations called into question when it came to any controversy as to whether or not I should have been preaching. Don’t get me wrong, I had come to terms with my sexual orientation with my G-d, but I knew the military’s stand, and most Christian theology back then had not evolved to where it is today. Even now, of course, being gay is still incompatible with Christianity with all but the most progressive of Christian denominations. Fortunately, I belong to several open and affirming churches through the United Church of Christ and Episcopalian faith, so I’m still deeply involved in my faith. Of course, I could not tell my executive officer I thought I might be gay, so my excuse, “I think I party too much…” was a non-starter. He told me if I could not find anyone else to preach then I would be it. That is how it is done in the military. You are ordered to do something and you do it.
I asked every protestant onboard the submarine if they would preach and was denied by all of them. The Saturday before our first service I could barely sleep, and that is unusual on a submarine where they work you to death. I spent a lot of that night in prayer, and had a dream that G-d wanted me to preach, and I announced in the dream, “Here I am!” and I became the ship’s Protestant Lay Reader.
This issue is so much bigger than me, but I do think it’s important for all of us who are gay and lesbian who have worn the uniform to tell our unique stories and the different ways we served our country. One day the military will look back and wonder why some were so bigoted and foolish when it came to integrating our military. In my case, I believe it is important to note for those people who have a big problem with “the gays” serving in the military for religious reasons that if it had not been for a gay man, there would not have been Protestant services onboard our submarine and we would not have been praising G-d from the depths of the ocean.
Of course, I’m sure those who were sleeping safely in their beds that morning I answered that call were unaware, but my G-d noticed my willingness when I had asked every single protestant onboard to be the Protestant Lay Reader and they would not do it. A gay man was the only one willing to step up and serve Him in the capacity of my submarine’s Protestant Lay Reader. It doesn’t matter what my sexual orientation happened to be, but no one can ever take my service as Protestant Lay Reader away from me. I earned it by default, yes, but I earned it. Of course, it was no picnic for me, either, but I did it because I was not going to just walk away after making that dramatic commitment in that dream of mine! Besides, the XO had ordered me and next to G-d, I didn’t want him chewing me out, either.
Finally, when I was eventually outed, I was approached by so many of my shipmates on my submarine and each one of them told me, “Petty Officer Beauchamp, if you are what it means to ‘be gay’ then I have no problem serving with you.” My commanding officer also wrote me a very nice letter about my service wishing me well. I then understood what the military is realizing today, and that is the only thing that prevents the successful integration of gays and lesbians in the military is a homophobic demand to force our troops and sailors to lie about an integral part of who they are as human beings.