OUT AND PROUD AFTER 'DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL' REPEAL
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The minute the policy "don't ask, don't tell" was ended, at 12:01 a.m. September 20th, Air Force Lieutenant Josh Seefried came out as gay and revealed that he was the officer who, under the pseudonym J.D. Smith, co-founded OutServe, the secret organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender troops.
Under that assumed name, he had also communicated with the media, the Pentagon and the White House about ending "don't ask, don't tell." Seefried has put together a new book called "Our Time: Breaking the Silence of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" which features stories by gay and lesbian soldiers who tell what it was like to have a secret life while serving in the military.
OutServe currently has 4,500 members, they publish a magazine and tomorrow they begin holding a convention where for the first time, gays serving in the military can be out and participate in discussions of issues affecting them.
Later, we'll meet Air Force Lieutenant Karl Johnson, who has a chapter in Seefried's book. They've been dating since April, and now they can be out as a couple. Josh Seefried, welcome to FRESH AIR, a pleasure to have you here. I think at like 12:01 on September 20th, on the day that don't ask, don't tell was no more, you outed yourself online, on Twitter and Facebook, explaining that you didn't have to be your pseudonym J.D. Smith anymore, you didn't have to be a silhouetted figure anymore.
You could have you picture and your name. So what was it like back on base after 12:01?
First Lieutenant JOSH SEEFRIED: There was a tremendous amount of support, more than I ever could have imagined. It was nerve-wracking going into midnight because not only had I been living under "don't ask, don't tell," but I had another double life of J.D. Smith running OutServe. So I was incredibly nervous going into midnight.
But after midnight, you know, I started receiving text messages and phone calls of just support and more than I ever had thought was possible to get.
GROSS: And were people surprised that you were gay, or did they basically know, even though you hadn't said anything?
SEEFRIED: You know, one of my people across base that I'm friends with ended up finding out I was gay, but a lot of people I worked with in my close office didn't know I was gay, and I think that was kind of a surprise for them.
GROSS: And were any of them, like, homophobic about it?
SEEFRIED: I haven't received one single negative response. When I got back to work, I'm not kidding, I had maybe about 200 messages in my work email from different people in the Air Force, across the world either thanking me for what I had done with OutServe or saying, you know, it's an inspiration. So, I mean, I haven't received one negative comment in the last two weeks, since they repealed don't ask, don't tell.
GROSS: Commanding officer?
SEEFRIED: Commanding officer was extremely supportive. He had no idea on September 20th. So he found out just like everyone else, and I received a call from him that morning. It was extremely professional and extremely supportive. And he told me over the past few weeks he had tremendous respect for me for doing this, and it was more support than I could have ever imagined from my commander or anyone else I worked with.
GROSS: As you point out, this is a great moment for gays in the military, yet for the first since the integration of African-American troops into the military, there will be inequality among the ranks. What inequality are you referring to?
SEEFRIED: Well, when "don't ask, don't tell" existed, everyone was assumed to be straight. I mean, the discrimination was invisible. So when you were kicking out someone under the military, everyone just got to kind of turn an eye to it, that discrimination wasn't really happening. But now that there's actually openly gay troops, that's visible there. And it's very different how gay troops are being treated than straight troops.
For example, if you're married in the military, and you're straight, you're paid more than, say, a gay troop that's, you know, legally married in Massachusetts. Or a commander will have to, you know, give an assignment to a straight couple, you know, when they can have a joint spouse assignment, but someone that's gay cannot have that joint spouse assignment.
So commanders and other people are going to have to watch this inequality exist. And I think that's going to create some interesting problems in the military because the military is built upon equality, being treated the same.
GROSS: Health benefits?
SEEFRIED: And absolutely health benefits. I mean, a civilian partnership, you know, can't have the same health benefits as a military couple, and it's something as simple as concerts on base. For example, we just had a concert at our base that you had to have a military ID to go to the concert. But, you know, if I was married to a civilian partner, he couldn't get a military ID to come onto that base to watch that military concert, but, you know, a straight couple could.
So it's even small things like that, like shopping on base and things like that, that, you know, will be visible inequality that people will have to see in the military that now exists.
GROSS: So I think all the inequality you're referring to gets back to gay marriage, to the fact that it's not legal.
SEEFRIED: I mean, I think DOMA does create a...
GROSS: And even if it's legal in your state, it wouldn't be recognized in the national military because that's a state marriage, and it's not federally recognized. Do I have that right?
SEEFRIED: Absolutely. State legislation does nothing for people that are in the military because for us DOMA is everything. So if there's not a workaround DOMA or there's not a repeal of DOMA, then gay marriage or getting treated equally in the military is not going to happen.
GROSS: So Josh Seefried is the author and editor of the new anthology "Our Time: Breaking the Silence of Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" and he co-founded the group OutServe. So tell us how you founded OutServe.
SEEFRIED: OutServe started when I had just graduated from the Air Force Academy. I was down in Mississippi at my technical training school, and I was looking for some gay friends down in the area and ended up coming across my instructor at my technical training school who happened to be gay himself.
Instead of being friendly about it, he started to harass me, started to change my test scores. He was gay himself, and so he started to harass me, show up to my hotel room, knock on my door. It was very, very scary. And over those three months, I was - you know, I was having a hard time with it.
I emailed a bunch of my close friends saying that, you know, this is what happens under "don't ask, don't tell" that people don't realize. And one of those people happened to be my close friend, Ty Walride(ph), and people like Kevin Calderwood(ph).
GROSS: One of the people who you were talking to about this.
SEEFRIED: Yes, and we came up with the idea of creating a website, CitizensForRepeal.com, and we just put up some stories of some of my friends who were under "don't ask, don't tell" and wanted to share their story anonymously.
And so we started to collect a database of gay people we knew in the military, and that kept growing, more and more. Then we realized that Facebook had this hidden setting that you can create these secret groups. It allowed people to see each other, but you couldn't get in unless someone invited you specifically. And that's out OutServe had started.
So we created these hidden Facebook groups and then started to put people in that we knew through this database, and it allowed people to connect with each other like never before.
GROSS: Let's get back to the blackmail story. So you've got the civilian instructor who's harassing you, who's, like, knocking on your door and threatening what?
SEEFRIED: You know, he was going to turn me in for being gay and stuff because he's a civilian. He's not tied to "don't ask, don't tell." And he was changing my test scores. And so I went through three months down in technical training not ever reporting him.
And then a few months later, I found out he had done this to other students, as well, and they weren't even gay. So I decided because I had proof, because he had changed my test scores, to turn him in. So I turned him in February of 2010, and he turned around and outed me. And...
GROSS: Didn't you expect that, though? How can...
SEEFRIED: I did.
GROSS: I mean, a guy is sexually harassing you, you're exposing yourself there. I mean, even if you were straight, you would risk that people would assume that you were gay and that that's why he was harassing you.
SEEFRIED: I did, but I figured that based upon how much he was doing to me and other students that it was worth the risk to just stand up and actually report him. Plus, there is a chance that I had the help of a group called Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to write a statement that didn't necessarily out myself and then to turn him in without outing myself.
Plus, Secretary Gates, he had come out with a new rule that stopped third-party outings that hopefully would save me. So I wrote the statement, he did turn around and out me, and I was removed from my job for maybe like a day or so. I was working at the chapel, and my security card was taken away from me. I wasn't allowed to log on to any computers.
And an investigation happened for a few months while they tried to go on, and the investigation was extremely hard because they were digging into my emails, they were trying to figure out, you know, what was going on, and I couldn't be truthful about everything because I had to hide this aspect that I was gay.
And it just - it was essentially like helping a criminal activity go on, but I mean, if I could have just been truthful about it, this investigation would have been completely over.
And a few months later, the investigation came back that, you know, not only had he been harassing me but students from years ago that came forward afterwards. The teacher ended up getting fired and no longer works for the military, but what's really interesting is just last week, I received a call from one of the investigating officers down in Mississippi, and he's like, you know, I had no idea.
And he's like this would have - I'm so glad the policy is over now because this thing would have been over quickly, and that's the kind of problems that "don't ask, don't tell" created that no one ever really thought of when the policy was around.
GROSS: Well, it's one of the great paradoxes of the policy, is that it forces - it forced gay people in the military to lie.
GROSS: And what is the Air Force code?
SEEFRIED: We will not lie, cheat or steal and tolerate anyone among us who does. I mean, that's the first thing that you're taught, and - I mean, but it's the first thing that you have to do when you go in there because you sign that piece of paper that you don't - you haven't engaged in homosexual activity.
So it's funny that here's the honor code, here's a sheet of paper that says lie. So, I mean, it's counterintuitive because I don't think people realize, if you're not gay, how much that conversation comes up. Like: Where are you going this weekend? Who are you dating right now? I mean, that conversation comes up so much, and you've always got to lie every single day.
I mean, there's not a single day that "don't ask, don't tell" was not part of your life while this policy was in existence.
GROSS: My guest is Lieutenant Josh Seefried. He edited the book "Our Time: Breaking the Silence of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" and he co-founded OutServe, the formerly secret network of gays and lesbians in the military. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Seefried, and he's the author of the new book "Our Time: Breaking the Silence of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'" that tells several stories of people in the military who are gay and had to lie about it while "don't ask, don't tell" was in effect. And several of them got blackmailed.
So let's get back to talking about OutServe. So you found a way of, through Facebook, having this kind of like secret group where people could be out to other people on the group, hopefully without risking being outed. What function during "don't ask, don't tell" did OutServe serve?
SEEFRIED: I think the most important thing that OutServe did was the social support it started to create. After the group started to get over about 200 people, we started to connect people regionally, and it just grew organically.
So people - we started to connect people, say, in Germany or Hawaii. We started to connect those people regionally so that they had people in their own area that were now connected, that could meet together.
One of the stories in the book that's really powerful to me that talks about this is the night of repeal, they got about 100 people together in Germany, and they were all together on the night of repeal, or when the legislation took place, and they talk about going out together.
And they talk about the activities that they got together, and that never existed before until we used social networking to connect people who had that social support like never before.
I mean, one of the things that we realized, and one thing that affected me the most is that when we started this, I got an email from someone that said, you know, I wish something like OutServe had existed a few months prior because if it had, maybe my friend wouldn't have killed himself.
People felt alone. People didn't know there were so many other gay people in the military. I mean, there's plenty of people that told me personally: I would have never met another gay person had this network ever existed before.
And so, the most paramount thing that OutServe did I think was socially support people. But I think that second of all, we provided the Pentagon and the White House for the first time ever access to gay troops.
GROSS: That's one of the incredible parts of the story. The Pentagon had commission a study from Rand, which is a big think-tank that does a lot of work for the military. And they were trying to find out what's it going to be like after "don't ask, don't tell." And there wasn't going to be any input from gay soldiers because they all had to be officially heterosexual to be in the military.
And then OutServe steps in. So who contacted who? Did you contact the Pentagon or vice versa?
SEEFRIED: What had happened was about April of 2010, we were getting frustrated with the Pentagon study because we - exactly, gay troops weren't involved in the process. So I wrote a letter in the Denver Post that got national attention that said - to Secretary Gates that said: You have this huge study going on, but you're only surveying straight troops. Why aren't we surveying gay troops?
And that caught a lot of national attention, and that caused the Pentagon to ask a few of the gay advocacy groups to get in touch with us that ended up bringing us to the table. And then we started working with the Pentagon a few weeks later, and we worked through the civilian liason, Ty Walride, who was the central - because they couldn't work with gay troops directly, like me. So they worked through a civilian to communicate with us.
So when they commissioned Rand, Rand was able to directly work with me, and so one of the things that Rand did at first was they were going to do kind of a snowball effect. They would find five gay troops, and they would - those gay troops would hopefully hand off this password to five different gay troops.
And that was a good idea, but it wasn't effective. So one of the things I told Rand was: Look, use our network, post it up on our network, and you can just open it up, and these guys will take it. And it worked.
OutServe ended up being over 90 percent of all the responses that the Rand Corporation survey. And, I mean, and that survey ended up getting quoted in the Senate hearings that December when they really started talking about repeal. So I think the Rand survey would have failed if we didn't have OutServe there because there was no way to survey those gay troops.
GROSS: This is one of my favorite parts of the story because it's just so crazy that the Pentagon really needs your input to know how to handle the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but they can't talk with you. They need you - you can't let them know your name. You can let the civilian Rand Corporation know. But it's just so - it's like so ironic, and it makes me wonder if Secretary Gates and other people in the Pentagon felt the irony of all that in the same way that I know it must have registered on you.
SEEFRIED: Well, I think that people honestly thought that there wasn't a lot of gay people serving in the military. I mean, I think that there's that mentality that honestly, there are just not a lot of gay people in the military, which is just not the case.
I mean, they estimate that there's about 65,000 to 70,000 gay troops in the military right now, and I feel like that number is personally low. I mean, OutServe's membership now is over 4,500 people, and we've only been around for a year. So it's...
GROSS: And it was a little dangerous to become involved with it.
SEEFRIED: Absolutely. So it's growing faster now. I mean, our membership is still you have to know someone to get in, even post-repeal. So it's still growing at a slower rate, and it's like where are we going to be at in a few years? Is 65,000, 70,000 really the numbers, or are we much higher?
So, I mean, I've always had the belief that there's a lot more gay people in the military because it feels kind of the safer environment for maybe gay people to want to join, to maybe a hide a little bit of who they were and stuff. But, I mean, I think that we're changing that mentality with OutServe right now.
I mean, it's one of the reasons I came out so strongly on September 20th. I felt that if I didn't come out, you know, that first minute, that first second, then I felt like I was a hypocrite because we said that for the past few years that there wasn't going to be an issue, there's no issue with gay people serving in the military.
So if I wasn't willing to come out on day one, on that first moment, then how could I expect anyone else to? So I wanted to show right away that there's not an issue here, and everyone else should feel just as comfortable, as well.
GROSS: So on September 20th, the day that "don't ask, don't" tell was repealed, you were on TV. You were on Rachel Maddow's show. You were on ABC News. Were you a little bit worried about that?
SEEFRIED: I was absolutely terrified, actually. Prior to midnight, I was with Ty Walride, the other co-founder of OutServe, and we were in a bar, sitting there with the laptop out, Googling my name, just hitting the refresh button to find the first story was going to hit. I mean - and just realizing that, you know, all these people are about to find out who I am.
I mean, it was scary. I mean, I knew the story would be, you know, decently big, and so I was just like how are people going to perceive what I've been doing over the last year? So I was terrified. But, you know, as the hours went by, it got so much better.
I mean, by the time I did Rachel Maddow that night, I was just - I felt so great because everyone was so supportive, and I was getting the calls from work saying that, you know, good job and everything. So I was nervous at midnight, I was terrified, but by the end of the day, I felt great just for how much support I had.
GROSS: Would you like all gay people in the military to come out?
SEEFRIED: It's always a personal choice, I mean, and that's always how it should be. But one of the things that personally bothers me and why this book was so important to me was that over in Britain right now, the policy's been changed for 10 years, but yet there's not one single Royal Marine that's out right now, not one. And it's because there's not a culture over there that's been built yet that says it's OK to be gay in the military.
But what we did with this book, and what we did with the magazine, what I did on September 20th, was we had myself come out, and we had 100 other people come out in the magazine with their photo, in uniform, and who they are. And they have every single career field - including combat, including the Marines.
And it's the same with this book. There's Marines in there, there's Air Force. And they all came out, they all told their story using their real name. And that helps change the mentality of people who feel like they can't be gay in the military. I mean, when that closeted gay marine is online and reads about this book, he realizes that he's not alone, that it's not a problem to be gay in the military.
And it gives people the inspiration because there is this book that was written by an Air Force officer a few years ago, and you read that book, and you go the inspiration that, you know, I'm not the only gay military person that ever existed.
And that's what I wanted this book to do is help combat the stuff that happens over in Britain where they don't have anyone that's out right now because the more people that come out, the more people feel safe to do so. You change that culture.
GROSS: Now, Josh, you've said that things have gone better than you expected they would after "don't ask, don't tell." But I'm wondering if you have been hearing from others about problems that they faced post-repeal.
SEEFRIED: Well, one of the things that we - our main duties with the Pentagon is to report any kind of problems that happen or good things, what's going on out on the field because they again still don't have a successful way to reach out just to the 65,000 gay troops.
GROSS: Are you talking about OutServe's responsibility? Okay.
SEEFRIED: Yeah, so one of the things that we do is we provide updates to the Pentagon on what's going on. So, like, prior to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," we'd give out, you know - here's some problems with this investigation that's going on with this commander. So we'd provide that kind of - those updates.
The updates we've given in the last two weeks have been like there's no issue. We haven't found one single problem. And so with 4,500 people, we have not found one single issue. I mean, I think that if there would have been one, we would have heard of it by now, and we haven't found one negative response yet out of anyone.
GROSS: Lieutenant Josh Seefried will be back in the second half of the show. He co-founded OutServe. His new book is called "Our Time: Breaking the Silence of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" We'll also meet Lieutenant Karl Johnson, who has a chapter in the book. They're now out as a couple. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." While the policy was still in effect, my guest, Air Force lieutenant, Josh Seefried, used the pseudonym J.D. Smith to co-found the secret Facebook network, OutServe, enabling gays and lesbians in the military to communicate with each other. The moment the policy ended, on September 20th, the network went public and Seefried came out.
He's edited a new book called "Our Time," collecting the stories of gays and lesbians who led secret lives under "don't ask, don't tell." One chapter is by Air Force lieutenant, Karl Johnson, who is also joining us. Last spring, he started blogging for Time magazine under the pseudonym Officer X, about the final months of "don't ask, don't tell." Johnson is now out and Seefried and Johnson are out as a couple.
Karl Johnson, welcome to the conversation.
KARL JOHNSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Let me say, you are among the very first couples in the military to be out as a couple. And I think, like, no one knows what that's like 'cause it never existed before, right? I mean you couldn't be officially out at all, let alone an out couple.
GROSS: So what does that mean as an out couple, now? What can you do that you couldn't do before?
JOHNSON: Well, I - they're quite a few things, and the military has a strong emphasis on the importance of family. And I feel that now they're going to start making some steps into including gay couples into the family. I, actually, was offered every - most squadrons in the military will have a support network for the spouses, for military spouses, and Josh was actually asked to join the spouse network from my squadron, which was, you know, it was kind of something that had never really occurred to me.
Like oh, you know, I wonder if Josh would want to join it? And it was interesting, you know, the question even caught me off guard a little bit. We still haven't really discussed it too much yet. But I just - a lot of opportunities for support and that family feeling that's really strong within the military. It's nice to kind of start to feel like we're a part of that.
GROSS: So what lies did you have to tell, previous to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" about the nature of your relationship, and how were you able to go places without revealing the truth?
SEEFRIED: He was my roommate when he came to a squadron function one time.
GROSS: But he wasn't really your roommate.
SEEFRIED: No he wasn't...
JOHNSON: No. That's kind of the back story that we'd have to tell people. You know, Josh would introduce me, oh, this is my roommate, Karl. And it's kind of weird because, you know, I'm showing up to a squadron function with Josh's squadron, you know, I'm kind of the odd man out. Everyone is like who is this guy? And for me I usually just kind of in passing I'll refer to Josh as my buddy Josh.
You know, you spend a long time with someone when you're crossing the ocean, when I'm on one of my flights. So you're with a small group of people for days on end, you know, sometimes 24 hours nonstop together, so questions of your personal life come up quite regularly. You know, they're talking about their family, their wife, their kids and a lot of times it'll kind of remind me of something that, you know might have just recently happened between Josh and me.
And it's funny because sometimes I'll try to relate it, sometimes I'll try to, you know, back up and say like oh, well, you know, this one girlfriend I had or, you know, just you come up with ways to relate with the conversation and not be quiet and cold and detached. But, you know, at the same time, it's yet you're telling a lie, always instantly trying to hide the way things really are.
SEEFRIED: When you think about it, too, Karl and I have had it easy the lat few months. I mean there's a story in the book, a Captain Flaherty, it's a pseudonym. He chose not to use his real name because he still has an alcohol problem. But, you know, and he was dating someone in the military and his partner died, and having to hide that from his co-workers, you know, not saying, you know, why he was gone for the few days, going home to arrange the funeral, why he was at the hospital and just, you know, pretending that everything is okay.
You know, I mean I've gone through a breakup and I've got to like pretend I'm all okay, but I can't imagine having a partner die and going to work pretending that nothing is wrong and having to lie to everyone at the work. So I mean there are people like Captain Flaherty in this book that like I mean it's just heartbreaking to have to imagine going through something like that. And I feel privileged that we - like I never had to do that under "don't ask don't tell" - that I feel kind of lucky that I never had to deal with that because there are people that have had much worse stories than we ever have.
GROSS: So, do you work with each other at all? And is there the possibility that you'd ever work with each other? I don't know what the code â no, what the guidelines are for people who are partners or who are married in terms of working relationships.
SEEFRIED: Well, our careers fields are kind of so different that, I'm in finance...
GROSS: Yeah, explain the differences. Yeah.
SEEFRIED: I'm a finance officer and he's a pilot, so I mean we're kind of just in completely different career fields. I mean hopefully, we'll get to, you know, we'll change the regulations to allow joint assignments over the next few months. I'm up for moving in the next few months so hopefully that changes, but, well, I mean we do not work in the same office or anything.
GROSS: So Karl, your job in the Air Force, you fly cargo plans and you're often in Iraq or Afghanistan making trips there.
GROSS: And I've heard plenty of stories of how dangerous it is to land and take off in those places. So I guess I'm wondering what it's been like for you. Like, what it was like for you during "don't ask, don't tell" to know that you were doing these risky missions and I know, you know, and they are cargo missions, but any flights in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be risky. So there you are, you know, on some of them risking your life to do your job and you can't even reveal who you are.
JOHNSON: You try not to think about those things and especially in those times. But I kind of find when I'm flying - I mean I, it doesn't belittle the job that I do, the mission. I mean it's that that's important. And I think that is testament to just the commitment for a lot of soldiers and troops who have gone through "don't ask, don't tell" - gay soldiers and troops - that all of us are still willing to go out there and put ourselves on the line even with this policy in place, because every single one of us believes in the job that we're doing over our personal lives.
GROSS: Yeah, I could see that. But at the same time, you know, you're putting your life on the line for your country, for the Air Force, and up until very recently, you couldn't say who you were. There would be, not only wouldn't that be respected, you'd be forced out.
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GROSS: I guess you'd have to compartmentalize to not let that...
JOHNSON: A little bit. You know, Josh was talking a little bit earlier about the double life aspect that you live being under the policy and it's almost about just trying to keep the two as separate as possible. Or at least it wasn't a policy and now it's kind of interesting that the two are starting to mesh a little bit. But it's an interesting process - trying to figure out how to make that work as well.
SEEFRIED: You get really good at lying. I mean - and you get really good at trying to keep your lives completely separate and keeping up with the stories and stuff. So, I mean it's something that becomes second nature to you just to make up a story and lie to someone.
GROSS: I think a lot of our listeners might be wondering like, OK, if these two guys are gay why did they go into the military during "don't ask, don't tell", knowing that they'd have to hide such a big part of themselves? I'd like you each to answer that.
SEEFRIED: Well, I think first thing when someone wants to join the military that's, you know, their life. I mean I learned about the military went I was little when I got from space camp. It was the thing that I wanted to do and nothing was going to deter me from doing that. And I think that, you know, even for a gay person, "don't ask, don't tell" at the start, sounds a little bit reasonable, you know, just keep your private life to yourself, you can live this double life, it won't be an issue.
And then you realize how hard it is. And then you realize the military is not living to "don't ask, don't tell". You don't realize that you can get blackmailed, that you can't report crimes. And then that's when you realize that "don't ask, don't tell" isn't as simple as it sounds. And then you realize that there's no way to get out of the military at that point.
I mean and that's why a lot of people will, you know, saw suicide as the way out, you know? Is that here's a person who has a six-year contract, he wants to get out of the military because hey, maybe he's getting blackmailed during "don't ask, don't tell", but he tries to get out, he's got to pay money back to the military because he's got money left on his contract. The only way he sees out is suicide.
I don't think people realize how hard living under "don't ask, don't tell" really is, because when I was signing up to live under "don't ask, don't tell", I didn't realize how hard it really was going to be. It sounded reasonable, but it really wasn't, it never was.
GROSS: Did you realize how gay you were?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SEEFRIED: I mean, I mean...
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GROSS: No, 'cause because of the book you make it sound like you still thought well, you know, I could find a girl. I can...
SEEFRIED: Yeah. I...
GROSS: I could be straight. I can make that happen.
SEEFRIED: Yeah. I mean I was just getting, I mean I went to the Air Force Academy so it was at 18 that I had to, you know, sign the contract, you know, to go into the military. I mean, in college the time that you, you know, really start to find out who you are. And so, I mean, when I signed up to go to college and stuff I really, you know, I thought that maybe it still was a phase I was going to get out and grow out of. But, you know, it wasn't.
GROSS: Karl, what's your story about, you know, going into the military knowing that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy existed?
JOHNSON: For me, I think it was a grave underestimation of what the toils would be like under the policy. I wasn't 100 percent convinced, similar to Josh, that I was gay at the time. You kind of have this voice in the back of your head that just says, you'll be able to make this work, it's going to be OK.
You know, I'm a pretty aggressive type A personality, so kind of admitting to myself that like no, this is going to be really hard, I pushed that to the back and definitely underestimated the - especially the long-term effects of constantly doing that. I address that a little bit in my story in Josh's book, as well. I talked about meeting a really good friend of mine - who in the book I refer to her as Sam, it's a pseudonym to protect her. But, yeah, I mentioned meeting up with Sam and in the back of my head thinking like OK, well, this seems like a reasonable, decent girl. I have fun hanging out with her. And I can even recall in my head, maybe, like, this will be a good last ditch effort at heterosexuality.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOHNSON: And that thought for any normal person, I mean, is, you know, it would set off lots of warning bells. But at the time you just, the military lifestyle, that white picket fence just sounds so appealing. I think you're willing to work hard to try to make that work even if it is unreasonable.
GROSS: But my favorite part of that story though, is like this is like your last ditch attempt to be straight.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: You have this very good friend, a woman named Sam.
GROSS: And you tried to make it work as a couple. So you propose being a couple with her and it turns out she's a lesbian.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOHNSON: Yes. And actually, from what I've heard that's not an entirely uncommon occurrence in the military, for that to happen with people. Yeah, and we're still really, really great friends.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us, Karl Johnson, Josh Seefried. Thank you very much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
SEEFRIED: It's been an honor. Thanks.
GROSS: Lt. Josh Seefried is the co-founder of OutServe, which begins his first convention tomorrow. His new book is called "Our Time: Breaking The Silence of "don't ask, don't tell." Lt. Karl Johnson has a chapter in the book. He blogs for Time magazine. You can read an excerpt of the book on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album 'The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. This is FRESH AIR.
BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO HANK WILLIAMS' LYRICS
TERRY GROSS, host: A new album, "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," finds a number of major country and rock musicians setting to music lyrics that Hank Williams left behind in four notebooks when he died in 1953. Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Jack White and Norah Jones are among the artists who have taken part in this unusual project. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, âHOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BROKEN MY HEARTâ)
NORAH JONES: (Singing) Time after time you've proven untrue, leaving me home to cry over you. Each time you come back, you say I'm your sweetheart, but how many times dear, have you broken my heart? Night after night...
KEN TUCKER: One must feel ambivalent about this album, "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams." Yes, it does give us an opportunity to hear some previously unreleased lyrics by one of the greatest songwriters country music has produced. But Williams didn't write the music that accompanies his words, and as sincere as these performers are, none of the words are framed the way Williams would have, had he completed the songwriting process. Would Hank, for example, have set "The Love That Faded" to a waltz beat, as Bob Dylan has done with it?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOVE THAT FADED")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) A love that faded left me lonely, dear. Days ever happy turned into lonely years. And as every May turn in July, my life is empty, lonely, I cry.
TUCKER: I like Dylan's performance, in the way that I like so many of Dylan's latter-day, gargling-with-Drano vocal turns. Dylan doesn't try to capture the sound of Hank Williams, and that's a good strategy. But so is Alan Jackson's, on "You've Been Lonesome Too," and if anything, Jackson sounds like an uncannily well-rested, well-preserved version of Hank himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE BEEN LONESOME TOO")
ALAN JACKSON: (Singing) If your heart has known such pain, until her death it's pride. Only to have the Lord with you and you've been near my side. If in your heart somehow you know you fail what 'er you do, then you have walked the road of pain, yes, you've been lonesome too. If you...
TUCKER: One of the greatest gifts of this project is to hear Williams at his most heartless, bitter and vengeful. Hank spent much of his career balancing songs of heartache with spiritual songs of faith. But I was thrilled to hear the dark Hank Williams as presented by Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell in their stark version of a great, ruthless lyric, "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HOPE YOU SHED A MILLION TEARS")
VINCE GILL AND RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) I gave my heart and soul to you. You done me wrong for years. I hope someday you suffer too and shed a million tears. Now I can see you clear as day, there on our wedding night. The warm glow of your heart so gay and your eyes blue, shinning bright. Your lips were like a rose red wine, the stars along came near. My one and only Valentine, my lily of the field.
TUCKER: Instead of heartache, heartlessness. Dismissals don't get much more decisive than that. Dylan was the first artist contacted to interpret this material, and the album has been released on his Egyptian Records imprint for Columbia Records. "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears'" stone-cold words can't help but remind me of the harsh Dylan of "Like a Rolling Stone" or something from "Blood on the Tracks." Similarly, Patty Loveless takes another face-slap lyric, "You're Through Fooling Me," and brings it to full crimson passion and beauty.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE THROUGH FOOLING ME")
PATTY LOVELESS: (Singing) I know someday I'll forget you, until that day I'll be so good. Go on and have your fun. Baby, this race is won. You ain't the kind that could be true. You like cheatin', all that you do. You're through fooling me, 'cause I'm through fooling with you. Oh, love is true...
TUCKER: It's interesting to see the lyrics of one song as printed on the CD jacket of "The Lost Notebooks," and to listen to where the line breaks occur in the singing of the others. Williams usually wrote here in quatrains, each verse a very direct ABAB rhyme scheme. Keeping the structure simple allowed him to speak directly, yet artfully. There's a flaw in this collection, however. Too frequently, the invited stars err on the side of caution, applying rather pallid, even rudimentary melodies to the lyrics, resulting in the washed-out backgrounds of songs covered by, for example, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams and Jakob Dylan. Then there's Jack White's labored impersonation of the wrong Hank - he sounds more like Hank Williams III, the wobbliest member of the Williams family to trade on the great man's name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, âYOU KNOW THAT I KNOWâ)
JACK WHITE: (Singing) Now you know that I'm know that you is no good. And you wouldn't tell the truth, even if you could. Lying is a habit you practice wherever you go. So you may fool the rest of the world but you know that I know.
TUCKER: Overall, however, the "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams" is catnip for anyone who is familiar with Hank Williams' greatest hits. A couple of these songs could have been crafted by the man himself into important additions to his canon. As it stands, we have these reverent, and sometimes inspired, interpretations of words that ring with graceful candor.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, âHOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BROKEN MY HEARTâ)
JONES: (Singing) You took my world and tore it apart. Oh, how many times have you broken my heart? You took my world, tore it apart. How many times have you broken my heart? How many times have you broken my heart?
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Russell Banks' new novel about a homeless sex offender. This is FRESH AIR.
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'LOST MEMORY OF SKIN' GOES WHERE MOST FICTION WON'T
TERRY GROSS, host: Over his long career, novelist Russell Banks has racked up an impressive list of award-winning books, like "Continental Drift," "Cloudsplitter" and "Affliction." None of them are easy or reassuring reads. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Banks' latest novel called "Lost Memory of Skin" certainly fits into that tradition, given that it explores the particular hell inhabited by homeless sex offenders. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: You've got to hand it to Russell Banks. He's certainly not writing with an eye to please readers or to be taken up by book clubs across the land. "Lost Memory of Skin" is not aiming to be a crossover literary stealth hit. If you're going to read it, you're the one who will have to cross over to Banks' world, and it ain't very pretty on his side of the social divide.
Banks' main character here is a 22-year-old homeless guy known only as the Kid - a name he adopted after doing time for using the Internet to solicit sex from an underage girl. The Kid grew up haphazardly in South Florida, a modern-day lost boy abandoned to the brutal day care of pop culture. The Kid's mom was always off partying, and his only consolations, from the age 10 onward, were the company of his pet iguana, Iggy, and his computer, onto which he downloaded hard-core porn for eight or nine hours after school every day.
Because of his criminal record, the Kid wears a GPS anklet that monitors his whereabouts, thus ensuring that he stays at least 2,500 feet away from pre-schools, playgrounds and all other spots where children might gather. When the novel begins, the Kid, with Iggy in tow, has found sanctuary under a causeway. There, he becomes part of a makeshift tent city of the dispossessed. All of the Kid's fellow campers are sex offenders, living on the primordial swampy outskirts of a locale that sounds a lot like Miami. It's the kind of geographical and moral wild zone where it helps to have a 6-foot-long, 27-pound Iguana sleeping with you in your tent at night.
As repulsive as this all sounds, the first half of "Lost Memory of Skin" is compelling in a low-grade nightmarish kind of way. Banks is going after a big idea about how contemporary culture can turn children into sexual commodities and losers like the Kid into predatory consumers. At first, given the Kid's addiction to skin flicks, the title of this novel seems faintly salacious, but as the novel progresses the title speaks to the modern disease of disconnection that Banks is also diagnosing. Here's the Kid coming to an epiphany about his porn addiction.
(Reading) He told himself it was normal, everyone did it - especially guys. Well, maybe only guys. And it was no big deal anyhow. In fact, it was boring, he told himself. But he knew better. He did it because he couldn't stop himself. He couldn't stop himself because watching pornography and masturbating were the only times he felt real. The rest of the time he felt as if he were his own ghost - not quite dead but not quite alive either. A dust bunny shaped like a person.
Ironically, as inauthentic as the Kid might feel to himself, Banks' much acclaimed precision as a writer makes the Kid's vacant inner life all too authentic to a reader. We step into the Kid's skin, so to speak, not because it's a comfortable to be, but because it's a place most fiction these days doesn't even attempt to take us.
So, Banks' ambition here has to be applauded, even if the final product falls short. Things start to go haywire in this novel as soon as an enigmatic character called the Professor turns up at the causeway and asks to interview the Kid for a sociology project on sex offenders. Given the many times this novel invokes classic castaway stories like "Treasure Island" and "Robinson Crusoe," the Professor's appearance makes those of us who grew up watching "Gilligan's Island" wonder if Mary Ann can be far behind? I'm being flip, but the Professor is such a pointlessly distracting character - morbidly obese, a double or triple agent for some spy outfit - that he all but wrecks the spare, blasted, end-of-world mood Banks has created. Long before the Professor makes his overdue exit, I was ready to hop back on the Minnow and return to more civilized shores.
"Lost Memory of Skin" is an uneven effort to excavate and redeem the dregs of modern society. Banks tells a disquieting story here that would have been even more powerful and more daring if he had told it straight, without subplots and second bananas.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Lost Memory of Skin" by Russell Banks. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we talk about soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with catastrophic IED injuries. These injuries are leading to advances in combat medicine, but also stressing the VA health care system. Our guest will be veteran war correspondent David Wood. His new series" Beyond the Battlefield" is published in the Huffington Post. Join us.
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