I am more

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class J. Michael Peña
  • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs

(Editor's Note: Commentary)

I can still remember the simultaneous excitement and fear on my mother’s face when I told her I was joining the military.

She witnessed how hard I was struggling after the COVID-19 pandemic had left me a college dropout, working a dead-end job at my cousin's mechanic shop and hating my life.

My mom was so proud that I was going to turn it around and do something so amazing as to serve my country, but she was scared. Sure, she was concerned about me being so far from home and the possibility of her youngest son being sent off to war.

But she was more afraid that I’d get pushed around because I’m gay.

My mother saw the stigma surrounding gay men during the AIDS epidemic, the military-brand McCarthyism that was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the 1999 media frenzy around the death of Barry Witchell, a Soldier bludgeoned to death in his sleep by a fellow Soldier on the suspicion he was gay. These only reaffirmed her belief that society had it out for homosexuals.

At least she had the comfort of knowing we lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles County in Southern California, one of the most pro-LGBTQ+ areas in America. It’s hard to worry about your gay son not being accepted when every June, the streets of LA are practically littered with rainbow flags and other Pride Month iconography.

While my mother was worried about me being around unsavory characters from more intolerant areas of the country, I was excited to make a fresh new start and see where life in the armed services would take me.

Before I left, she pleaded with me not to disclose my sexuality out of fear I’d be harassed, or worse, end up like Barry Witchell. It’s a fool's errand to tell a mother to not worry about her child, but I promised her I was going to be OK.

Since that day, I’ve spent almost two years in the Air Force, and I cannot express how wrong she was - but not in the way you might think.

The military has made a 180-degree turn since DADT, celebrating LGBTQ+ service members during Pride Month and educating others about the history surrounding Pride, but I’ve never really felt a connection to the LGBTQ+ community.

I’m still appreciative of the historic sacrifices, perseverance, and triumphs of those who came before me. Thanks to their efforts, I am on more equal standing with my heterosexual counterparts than I would have been at any other point in history.

But where I find I’m most accepted, is with the very country dwellers I was taught to be wary of.

Growing up where I did, one tends to learn many preconceived ideas about the type of people who live in “the South.” Fears of hate crimes were practically the consensus among my gay friends, with my mother sharing similar concern.

Don’t get me wrong, they hit some stereotypes right on the head – their sense of humor most notably. But I have never come across a group of people who have treated me more like an individual, rather than isolating my entire being to my sexual preference.

My friends from Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina approach the fact of my sexuality with one thought: “So what?”

Some of my past friends would spend unhealthy amounts of time on social media, engaging in arguments with strangers across the nation about random topics turned political. This was especially true when discussing anything regarding the LGBTQ+ community, and I was not spared when I disagreed.

They went so far as to berate me and call me, a gay man, homophobic because of my dislike of drag, my traditional religious beliefs, or other opinions that didn’t fit the homosexual stereotype.

We could discuss how a certain adult dating app isn’t good for the long-term health of the gay community, or how to make the adoption process easier for same-sex couples, but when it came to where drag shows belong, I was apparently the one against gay rights, and it often turned into a firestorm.

My new friends? Their only concern is how we are going to spend our weekends.

They want to know who can bring a truck to pick up some furniture, or if the weather is warm enough to take the dirt bikes out to the river and go camping. They ask who’s chipping in for the steaks for our group dinners, which Mario Party board is best, or who wants to go out to comedy night.

To them, I’m more than just another homosexual who’s expected to subscribe to a particular behavior or way of thought.

I am the culmination of my passions, goals, skills, beliefs, successes, failures, and moral code that work in tandem with my immutable characteristics to help define my unique experience in life.

To them, first and foremost, I am Michael.

While I have my own opinion on the need for Pride Month and other LGBTQ+ topics, I do respect how much the Department of Defense has tried to do right by all service members.

To be honest though, I’m more thankful for my friends and how far our recent generations have come in the tolerance of same-sex relationships.

Of course, my mother gets confused when I tell her all these things, but she’s just happy to hear she was wrong about my friends and that I’m enjoying my military career so far.

Now the only thing she has to worry about is if I’ll come home singing country music next Christmas.