- STILL A SOLDIER: Robert Loyd, at his home in Conway.
Even though the U.S. military's institutional persecution of gay soldiers was consigned to the history books on Sept. 20 with the formal end of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, it's still hard to find gay former soldiers in Arkansas willing to talk about their experiences. The scars from the particular brand of fear experienced during what one called "The Witch Hunt Era" tend to linger.
Conway's Robert Loyd, co-founder of the gay and lesbian advocacy group Conway Pride, has been protesting for equality in the military since the mid-1990s. Raised in Damascus — a Vietnam vet who served as an infantryman during some of the bloodiest years of that war — Loyd said his upbringing meant that he didn't even know the definition of "gay" when he volunteered for the Army as a 19-year-old in 1967.
Though he didn't know he was gay then, Loyd said that looking back at photographs of himself from the year and a half he spent in Vietnam makes it clear to him now. "I'm looking at them and it's like, why didn't somebody in my life look at me and say, 'Are you gay?'" he said. "Even from old photos, I can look at me now and say: I could have been a really good queen if queens had existed back then. But I had no concept."
Others around him apparently realized it before he did. Loyd said his first homosexual contact was being sexually assaulted by his platoon leader while in Vietnam, an experience which left him broken and confused. After leaving the war zone, he spent his final year in the Army in Germany. While he knew by then that being gay was a criminal offense in the military, he found Europe to be welcoming for homosexuals. When he was kissed by a "pretty blond German boy" one night, something in his head clicked, and he realized he was gay.
"There really is no prejudice. It's not unusual to see men or women holding hands or hugging in almost all of Europe, so I had no concept that it was a wrong thing when I got my first boyfriend," he said. "I did understand by then that you could be drummed out of the service and locked up ... but my opinion was, if that's what you want in life, who is somebody else to tell you you shouldn't do that? It didn't make any sense to me."
Loyd said that the ban on gays in the military has always stuck him as a "stupid, stupid thing," especially given that the majority of gay people he knows are at their most enthusiastic and courageous when supporting their friends. That's key when the life of the soldier next to you might depend on how far you'd go to protect them. "No one is more dedicated and loyal and kindhearted than gay people, and [I say that] not just because I am one," he said. "I know it sounds a little self-serving. But if you've been kicked on and shit on your whole life, you learn to be strong, you learn to be tough, and you learn to be a kind person."
While Robert Loyd's story of a young vet discovering his sexuality after surviving war has the ring of a coming-of-age novel to it, the stories told by former Army Col. Kaye McKinzie sound more like something written by Kafka.
Now an assistant professor in the College of Business at UCA, McKinzie is a West Point graduate who spent 23 years in the Army before retiring two years ago. For McKinzie, life as a closeted lesbian officer was a daily struggle with fear, with the threat of prison hanging over her head the whole time. In the days before DADT, the Army routinely carried out what she and a network of closeted friends called "Witch Hunts" on the most meager evidence of homosexuality, with the investigation tearing apart lives and pulling in anyone even remotely connected to the person at the eye of the storm. McKinzie said that so much as saying you didn't have a personal problem with someone being gay could bring an investigation down on your head.
"As soon as somebody heard of a Witch Hunt, you'd reach out to everyone you know," she said. "What we'd say is: 'duck and cover. Witch Hunt.' Everybody would clam up. You would stop going out. You'd stop talking to people. You would not keep any mail. Any mail you got, you shredded or burned."
Though McKinzie went to extremes to avoid exposing herself, moving an hour away from her duty post and making only civilian friends, she was investigated three times in the years between her enlistment and the enactment of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — once because she loaned her car to a person who was later investigated. Serving her country and being a lesbian meant, in a very real way, pretending every minute of her workday that the woman she loved (Catherine Crisp, a UALR professor of social work who McKinzie is still with) did not exist.
"We had to have completely different lives. You have to use totally different pronouns," she said. "The way I tell my friends, imagine when you leave your home, between that time and the time you come back, only using the singular pronoun: I or me. Never saying 'we.' Never discussing anything that has to do with a 'we.' Travel, going out to dinner, 'what did you do this weekend?' None of that could ever reference 'we.' It was really hard."
McKinzie spent most of her time in the Army with the military police. Among their duties: investigating charges of homosexuality and sodomy. McKinzie said she only investigated one case of suspected homosexuality during her years of service. "I called those soldiers in and I had a one-way conversation with them," she said. "I told them to shut up and get an attorney — that they had to report to the investigating officer, but that they were to report, salute, tell them that their commander told them to see the attorney and leave ... My soldiers wanted to talk to me, but I stopped them from talking. Had they said something, I would have had to prosecute them."
While McKinzie said that DADT wasn't a perfect solution, it did stop the Witch Hunts, and opened up the possibility for the military to have internal dialogue about what being openly gay in the military might look like. "It allowed people to talk about being gay," she said, "about having family members who were gay, about not having an issue with being gay, about how would we address this situation, about the issue of showers and living facilities. It allowed us to talk about it. It allowed us to think about it and process and reason."
Though the ban on gays in the military is now a thing of the past, McKinzie is still concerned for the rights of those who decide to serve openly. "A lot of people who are still in the service have the fear: What if a Republican wins the next election? Will they reverse the policy?" she said. "I think once you go forward you can't go back, personally. But there's a real fear for them. There's also a fear that just because the policy says it's this way doesn't mean there might not be someone out there who is very homophobic and very against the policy that would try subversively to ruin your career."
Even with those possibilities, McKinzie's advice for a young gay or lesbian person who is considering joining the military is fairly simple when it comes to whether they should reveal their sexuality or not: Do not lie. "There is an extreme honor in the military," she said. "At the time I went in, it was a very conscious decision on my part on whether or not it was more important to serve my country or lie about who I was. It was a really hard choice. But do not lie. Lying on any sort of application for entry is grounds for dismissal."
Though she said the stress on her, her partner and their relationship was part of the reason she decided to retire from the service two years ago, she talks like a woman who would take those same risks all over again in order to serve.
"It's a choice that we made in order to serve our country," she said. "Those of us that stayed in felt that the service obligation to our country for the rights and privileges that we have in the United States was worth it. We had that kind of commitment — that we had sworn to give our lives for our country, and it was worth it."