I doubt many people remember a specific time they watched C-SPAN, let alone the exact date. But on Dec. 18, 2010, there I was, in my Durham, North Carolina, apartment, watching the U.S. Senate vote on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. Up until 1993, the military forbade openly gay people from serving, even though it was common knowledge that gay men and women have served this country in every war.
When Congress passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 1993, it was intended to be a compromise between those who wanted to end the military’s ban on LGB individuals from serving and those who wanted to keep the ban in place. The idea was that LGB people could serve as long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation, and military leaders were not supposed to ask. However, it did not stop the discharging of LGB service members who were “outed,” whether voluntarily or not.
During Congressional hearings on the proposed repeal, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen stated, “…allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution. I also believe that the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change.”
I had already been accepted to nursing school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when the repeal was signed into law, but I knew that I wanted to be a U.S. Navy Nurse Corps officer after I graduated. The Navy has a program for nursing students where they provide you with a signing bonus and monthly stipend during school in return for active duty time after graduation. After the bill passed the Senate, President Barack Obama signed it on Dec. 22. I called my recruiter on Dec. 23.
You could say the rest is history, but that would be a disservice to the past 11 years. When I left for Officer Development School, I was so nervous about what my experience would be as a gay man in the military. I carefully packed my suitcase, making sure not to pack anything too colorful or too tight. I distinctly remember choosing a washcloth instead of a loofah because loofahs were clearly gay. Who was I kidding? Anyone who talked to me for five minutes would have a pretty good idea of where I fell on the Kinsey Scale.
Yet, all of that fear and anxiety ended up being for nothing. I have had literally zero personal attacks on me for my sexuality since joining the Navy. Perhaps it is because I work in nursing and medicine where my peers have more education and therefore more tolerance, but over the years and, after building a network of gay officer friends who work in other areas outside of medicine, by and large their experiences have been positive.
After spending several years as a med-surg nurse and then an outpatient clinic manager, I made the career choice to switch to perioperative nursing. The Navy offers a hefty bonus to operating room (OR) nurses, and I knew I wanted it. I am not ashamed to admit that—it’s called a retention bonus after all. That said, during my time shadowing in the OR in preparation for the Navy’s perioperative nurse training program, I thoroughly enjoyed the team atmosphere that exists in the OR. Everyone has their role, and each role is essential and valued. I saw how surgeons relied on their seasoned surgical techs and circulating nurses to ensure a case went well. I marveled at the skills the young Navy corpsmen surgical techs demonstrated during complex surgeries when I was just trying to learn the names of the instruments.
After spending three months in perioperative training, I transferred to my next assignment as a perioperative nurse. At the time of my arrival, I quickly learned that the service nurse for peripheral vascular surgery was due to leave around the time I would complete orientation. The thought of running a service after just completing orientation at my first duty station was daunting. Not only that, we are talking about vascular surgery.
The reality was, I did not really have a choice. We have a term in the military called “volun-told.” It goes something like this: “Hey, nice work getting that vascular surgery position. Did you volunteer for it?” “No, I was volun-told.” “Oh…well, good luck! I’m sure you’ll do great…”
Luckily for me, I happened to be placed with an amazing team of surgeons who are supportive and epitomize teamwork. They frequently assist each other in cases by scrubbing in or just being in the room to offer their input. I could see scenarios when a surgeon would not necessarily want the input of another surgeon during a case, but this team embraces it and encourages it. There is a genuine sense that everyone can learn something, and everyone brings something unique to the table. I have watched them mentor and train our young surgical techs, and they have taught me so much as well. During all of this, not once has my sexual orientation ever been an issue, nor have I felt the need to mask who I am. It was the chief of vascular surgery who asked me if I would be interested in sharing my story. The days of choosing washcloths over loofahs are long gone.
My hope is that if there is ever someone in our OR who has not yet made that choice to express their truth or emerge from the closet that they see the genuine fun our team has in the OR. I hope they see the mutual respect the team members share for each other. I will not go so far as to say that we have achieved a post-sexual identity era in the military or in America. The issue of open transgender service has been volleyed back and forth for the last six years. That said, I am proud to be out amongst my colleagues and appreciate the professional friendships we have forged together in our vascular surgery corner of the OR.
*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Lt. Joseph Biddix, BSN, is based at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.