Serving in the military is a First Nations tradition in North America. My father proudly served for thirty years. Not long ago I went to the military retirement ceremony for an old friend. My friend had been in the active duty military or Guards pretty much full-time for almost thirty years. He has faced several overseas deployments with grace, wit, and charm, spoken up for, and otherwise, defended those of lesser rank or stature, and provided unswerving leadership to his group. As we learned at the ceremony, he is much-loved by those who worked with him. This was truly an honoring ceremony.
My friend, who is a first generation American, and his long-term marriage partner were recognized for their many contributions to the Guard. It is easy to forget the enormous responsibilities carried by spouses while military personnel are on deployment. Deployments are particularly challenging for families with kids, and my friend and his mate have parented many foster children, running the full range of ages.
The ceremony was unforgettable: warm, playful, and serious in turn. My friend received several awards and commendations, and much applause. The affection in which he is held by his compatriots was palpable, as was the love he holds for his mate.
My friend is gay, and until recently such a ceremony would have been unthinkable. He spoke to that, thanking his superiors and colleagues for supporting and protecting him over the years. There had been several investigations begun, each involving allegations or suspicion of homosexuality. Each investigation could have ended his career, and was deflected or ended by a superior. Each intrusion on his privacy was frightening and hurt.
My friend spoke eloquently to the challenges of maintaining his marriage for many years in what was then the oppressive environment of the military. He also spoke of his dream of being an officer, and how that was impossible during the gay ban. This was an immense loss. When his partner was called up to receive a commendation, the depth of the injustice wrought on this military family became apparent to all. Near the end of the ceremony my friend reminded us that discrimination remains an issue for many persons in our military and in the society at large.
On the way home following the ceremony I was left thinking about the acceptance of a broad range of sexualities and gender preferences in pre-Christian Native America. Women, who wished, were hunters and warriors; men could be housewives or childcare providers. There was an understanding that people are complex and that diversity supported the good life. I also thought about the plight off all those who were forced to “pass” in order to participate in the military, or in American culture at large. (Passing might be about sexual orientation, gender, disability, race, or creed, amongst others.) Just consider the harm done to their, and our collective, spirits.
The task of empathy and understanding is unending. We are invited in our lives to develop compassion for self and others, to open ourselves to complexity and diversity, and to be kind. We are also called to stand up to oppression and injustice. Following this call is not necessarily comfortable. Indeed, it is often challenging, even dangerous, work. My friend long ago accepted the task. It is a joy and an honor to have him in my life.