Honor and Betrayal

5.26.2014

By Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Being gay is no longer a bar to joining the military, but tens of thousands of former service members continue to be tarred by their military records. One woman fights to win back her honor.

Photography by Hayley Young

When Tomé Muir turned up at a Navy recruiter’s office in 1980, nobody asked her if she was a lesbian. “I was asked if I had homosexual tendencies,” Muir explains, cracking a small smirk.

Muir, who was 18 at the time, joined the Navy to escape one of the three fates that seemed to befall girls from her tiny Illinois town: getting a job at the dairy farm, getting a job at the chemical plant, or getting pregnant. Muir didn’t want any of those things. She wanted to become a Blue Angel, an aerobatic naval pilot doing rolls and spins in the sky for cheering families in the stands.

Muir enlisted before the Clinton-era compromise of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” She had always liked women — and many liked her right back — but that didn’t seem like a reason to not join. She listed “no tendencies” on her recruitment papers that morning in 1980 and then spent the next year fixing and fueling Navy helicopters near Pensacola, Fla. On occasion, her commanding officer would sneak her into the chopper for a fly above the base.

“There’s nothing like it, looking down on clouds like they were cotton,” Muir says wistfully. She is 53 now and lives in Washington state. Although well-liked by her peers, Muir was kicked out the Navy for misconduct after being spotted at a gay bar near the naval base — one of an estimated 114,000 service members discharged because of their sexual orientation between World War II and September 2011, when DADT was repealed.

When you are discharged from the military — meaning you are let go before your terms of enlistment expire — it can be for any number of reasons: injury, disability, starting a family, or hardship. Your discharge status is based on your performance in the military. If your superiors find you to have excellent conduct and high performance marks, you can receive an honorable discharge, which allows access to GI and veteran’s benefits such as subsidized education, discounted mortgage rates, healthcare, disability, and life insurance. If your superior officer finds your conduct less than excellent, you receive a general discharge or, even worse, an “other than honorable” discharge. This latter category severely limits access to benefits. This is Muir’s status. If your conduct ranges from bad to criminal — offenses include violence, sexual assault, and drug use — you are given a dishonorable discharge and are entitled to no benefits whatsoever, a misfortune to befall many gay and lesbian service members.

With her other than honorable discharge, Muir could not use the military as a reference for potential employers, who would have access, if they wished, to her discharge papers, including an account of her misconduct. In Muir’s case, her commanding officer gave a one-word explanation: “homosexual.” If Muir could have reenlisted she would have, “in a heartbeat,” but a discharge for homosexuality means you can’t come back.

Over an Italian buffet in the mossy, low-key suburb of Federal Way, Wash., Muir, who now works doing inventory at a local AutoZone, explains what was going through her head when she came to the recruiter’s office that day in 1980.

“Before you take the physical, there’s some papers to fill out and it says it, right there on the line: ‘Do you have any homosexual tendencies?’ You’re not really lying, but you’re not really telling the truth either. You’re looking at it and thinking, Do I tell the recruiter what I am? Or do I get a career? So you’ve got to weigh it: Do you want to be who you are today? And you know if you tell them the truth, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

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