It's Fleet Week here in San Francisco. This annual event brings our city a host of events, including the Parade of Ships, the America's Cup race, concerts by the Navy, Marine, and Air Force bands, and of course the impressive air show featuring the jets known as the Blue Angels. Fleet Week also brings thousands of sailors to San Francisco. During the week, you'll find them everywhere as they roam this town seeing the sights of the City by the Bay.
But this year, Fleet Week also brought me the chance to see something for the first time. It gave me the chance to see the end of DADT with my very own eyes.
I'll explain after the jump.
On Saturday evening, I met a friend at a bar in the Castro. We parted company relatively early, and I didn't feel like going home quite yet. I wandered around a bit, finally stopping in at a dance bar where I knew I was certain to be one of the oldest patrons. But I could hear the music, and I rather fancied a dance, so I went on in.
The place was filled with young people, and I made my way towards the rear of the bar, where the small dance floor is located. I stood there for a good while, listening to the music, looking at the video screens, and just watching the crowd. There were lots of young gay men, and more than a few straight women, who increasingly seem to enjoy spending a night out in the city's gayborhood.
Suddenly, with my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of a young man standing immediately to my left. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, and when I turned my head to get a better look, I noticed he was wearing what seemed at first glance to be a sailor's uniform.
Now, being a gay man of a certain age, my first thought was that he was in costume. Lots of men in my community have a thing for uniforms, and on a Saturday night in the Castro, it's hardly unusual to find someone dressed up and playing soldier or sailor or cop. But as I looked closer, my initial impression began to change. It may have been something in the young man's posture. He was standing straight up, with his shoulders back and his feet planted some space apart. The phrase "military bearing" came immediately to mind. He held a white sailor's cap in his hand, apparently observing the old-fashioned rule my parents taught me about men removing their hats when indoors. His shoes were black and so shiny that their gloss was visible even in the dim light of the bar. Then I began to notice the details of his uniform. It was navy blue with white trim, and I saw stitched onto the sleeve the name of a naval hospital in 29 Palms, California.
It finally dawned on me that it wasn't a costume. I was standing next to an honest to goodness, active-duty sailor. In full uniform. In a gay bar. A moment later, he was joined by another young man in uniform, a uniform so spotless and impossibly white it seemed a little unreal. He, too, carried his cap in his hand. Then I looked across the bar and saw two young women identically attired in crisp white uniforms with gold buttons. Their oval shaped caps were worn at the slightest angle on their heads.
I soon realized that I wasn't the only one paying attention to their presence. Many of the other civilian patrons had also noticed the uniformed sailors. Most were smiling broadly at the sight. Some discreetly nudged their friends to make sure they saw the servicemembers. As the sailors moved through the bar, other patrons clapped them on the shoulders and thanked them for their service.
I got the sense that, like me, everyone in the bar was happy for them. Happy that they could finally socialize freely with other gay people without fear of discharge or reprisal. But it was more than that. I felt a certain pride in seeing those sailors, and I could tell the feeling was shared by the other civilian patrons. I was proud that we could finally openly and publicly claim them as our own. At long last, we could acknowledge them as members of our community.
Of course, long before Saturday night, I had been well aware that DADT was no more. I followed the struggle to repeal the statute closely. (I even devoted one of my very rare diaries to the topic.) But my initial reaction reminded me that on some level, the removal of that odious law had remained an abstraction until that moment. I couldn't figure out why that was so, but it struck me that perhaps I was simply old, and I was mired in an old way of thinking. My mindset about LGBT equality was formed long ago, back in the days when things like open service in the military and same-sex marriage seemed like impossible dreams, in the days when we gay men were, quite literally, just trying to survive. The thought began to make me feel even more out of place among the young people around me, most of whom seemed to find the situation far less remarkable than I did.
Thanks to the VJ, however, my moment of reflection came to an abrupt end. As I stood there immersed in my reverie, the music changed. The seemingly endless stream of slickly produced, high-definition videos by J-Lo, Rhianna, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and the other beloved divas of contemporary dance-pop was interrupted by one with a grainier appearance and a slightly tinny sound. The androgynous face of Sylvester appeared on the screen, and I heard the opening bars of his great hit, Don't Stop. Pushing my way through the crowd of young people, I made it onto the dance floor. Most of the kids around me probably had no idea who Sylvester was or what he meant to our community back in what I sometimes call "the Time Before" -- the age before the scourge of AIDS. But they danced just as joyously as I did, and for the first time that evening, I felt like I belonged in the place.
We liberals know that progress is usually painfully slow. And sometimes when it finally does come, it can be hard to see. It seems abstract rather than concrete. I guess that's how DADT repeal was for me. It was a step forward that I had yet to really see. Until Saturday night, when a young man in blue appeared out of nowhere and made it real.