Story by PO1 Jacques Renard on 07/10/2019Gay Pride. For so many Americans serving in the United States Armed Forces today, it means much more than just identifying as a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. For service members, it means to serve openly and proud, without the fearful silence of having to decide whether being with their beloved openly or their call to duty.
History recognizes the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York as the beginning of the LGBTQ movement. However, for over 2 centuries military service members, government officials and employees have long fought an arduous battle, from the hearts and minds of men up through the highest court in our democracy, to obtain fair and equal rights and the freedom to love whomever they please. Yet, so many LBGTQ Americans remained quiet and distant themselves from their friends and colleagues for fear of unjust treatments.
The U.S. Navy, ordered by Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to launch an undercover sting operation "Vice and Depravity" in 1919 aimed at seducing Sailors suspected of being homosexual. At least 17 Sailors were jailed and court-martialed before public outcry prompted the Senate to condemn the operation.
Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin was the first document Solider in 1778, serving in the Continental Army to have been relieved and discharge from service due to his homosexual proclivity. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich a decorated Vietnam Veteran was discharge from service in 1975 after declaring his sexuality on the cover of Time magazine and Air Force Staff Sgt. Anthony Loverde was one of many 13,000 members of the armed services to be discharged under President Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy.
Before the DADT policy was repealed, some young Americans held a secret for hope and chance to one day join the U. S. Armed Forces. For Ensign Matthew Derden, amphibious assault ship USS Bataan's (LHD 5), electronics maintenance officer, his personal discloser was retracted and remained tight-lipped until he was ready to share that information about his life.
"I came out of the closet when I was 14 years-old. I went back into it in 2008 when I was 22 years-old [to enlist in the Navy]," said Derden. "Don't tell anyone who you are, really means don't let anyone find out," Derden exclaimed. "I witnessed a Sailor get discharged after being outed for the first time while I was in A' School at Great Lakes. He left a flier from some gay club in his trash and his roommates turned him in. That's when I realized that discrimination wasn't only tolerated against gays, it was a requirement."
Despite the DADT policy, Derden loved the opportunities the Navy provided. He worked really hard at his craft and excelled up through the ranks. Like every other junior enlisted personnel, Derden complained about his daily duties and challenges of being a young Sailor. For him, the worst part of the Navy was the best part and he quickly developed strong bonds of friendship among his peers, but how long could he maintain his secret?
"It became increasingly hard to keep up the lies, and to live a double life while becoming so close to such awesome people," explain Derden. "I didn't want to put them in a position where they had to keep a secret that I considered my burden to bear."
Derden was careful not to disclose anything about his lifestyle away from work. He created excuses of why he wouldn't meet up at gathering, functions or events with friends, and he dull downed his weekend exploits during the Monday morning conversations with his colleagues so not to build up interest in joining him the following weekend.
"I hated lying, so I tried to keep things vague and tried to avoid sharing anything about me personally," explained Derden. "Eventually, my Navy friends just stopped inviting me out. We were all still good friends at work, but it was understood that is where it ended."
After the DADT policy was repealed and the U.S. Supreme Court stroke down the portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted federal employees in same sex marriages, including military families, from receiving federal benefits. "Everyone in the military came to work and did their jobs like professionals, and the world continued to spin," said Derden.
Derden recalled how emotional he felt during an all hands call when his chain of command addressed the crew on the repeal of the DADT policy. Some of his fellow shipmates asked concerning questions about how the changes were going to affect them. "What if someone is gay and lives in my berthing," one Sailor asked. "Will they have to move out?" His commanding officer (CO) replied to the Sailor "no." Another Sailor asked do we have to share the same bathroom with them and his CO's response was, "yes, you already do."
Derden's second coming out was not a big to-do.
"that's not my style," Derden explained. "The shipmates, who I was terrified of finding out that I was gay, immediately embraced me as I told them one by one and their only gripe was I didn't tell them earlier."
I'm proud to be gay, it's who I am. I'm also proud to be a Sailor and to be a part of an organization that stood up and did the right thing, when the right thing still wasn't that popular in America," said Derden. "I'm proud to be an LDO [Limited Duty Officer] Mustang, and to have the chance to lead and mentor Sailors regardless of their sexual orientation every day and finally, I'm proud that when people see my wedding ring and ask "What does your wife do?" My response is "He's a Chief."