Why the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is a teachable moment

OPINION - When the Senate voted this afternoon, the men and women of our Armed Services finally felt free to live, love and serve -- equally -- without regard to sexual orientation...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I hated the woman from the moment I laid eyes on her.

She called me trash, said my belongings were trash. The only redeeming thing about me, she said, is that I was her trash. I stood by as she upended my suitcase, spilling its meager contents out onto the asphalt in one of my first days of training as a U.S. Marine.

Over the following days and weeks, she pushed me harder than I had ever been pushed before. She tested my mental capacity, worked me physically until I cried out in pain, and then, as my spirit waxed and waned, she poured on even more punishment. She stared over my broken body with a brand of pitiful resolve.

Hers was the first voice I heard with every dreadful sunrise and the last ugly thing I heard before I drifted off to sleep. She force fed me the worst food I’ve ever eaten in my life and made me run countless miles with a 100-pound pack on my back and an M-16 strapped across my chest. My every sentence began and ended with “yes, ma’am!” because she said so.

Her name was Glenda Jones.

She was my Marine Corps drill instructor, assigned to turn a wayward street urchin into a polished, disciplined woman of distinction. It wasn’t easy for her. For the first few weeks, I fought to hold on to the disaster of a life I’d left behind. The harder I fought, the tougher Sgt. Jones pushed me. As soon as I would reach the bar, she would raise it even higher. Everything, it seemed, was just out of reach. I wanted to give up, to quit and go home. She wouldn’t let me.

“Ain’t nothing out there for you, Taylor!” she shouted. “I’m all you got!” And she was right.

Before my enlistment, I barely made it out of high school, flunked out of a semester in college and lived on my sister’s sofa. At 18, I was barely eking out a living, running pizzas for Domino’s in my beat up Honda and ringing up lottery tickets on the graveyard shift at a 7-11 store. I drank anything I could get my hands on and dated anybody who paid me two seconds worth of attention, one of whom enjoyed planting his fist in my face. I’ve long said that if drugs had been involved or if Mark ever got hold of a gun, I would be dead.

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Whatever future I would have rested firmly in the hands of Sgt. Jones.

It wasn’t long before a new me was born. In time, I figured out what it meant to be a leader. I learned something about accountability, integrity and honor. The woman next to me was my sister, the man my brother. If I would ever know a modicum of success, I knew then, it would be because I worked for it. Lack of self worth, the thing that kept me trapped in an abusive relationship, evaporated. For the first time, I was an important part of a team.

Sgt. Jones quite literally saved my life.

She stood by gleefully as I mastered every new challenge. She shouted with joy the day I out-shot all 40 of my classmates on the firing range and went on to break academic and physical training records, setting myself up for a meritorious promotion upon graduation from bootcamp. I took on obstacle courses and the gas chamber like a zealot chasing after the first supper. The world was my kingdom.

And then, Sgt. Jones was gone. I woke up one morning and didn’t hear her voice. There was no explanation, no long heartwarming good-byes.

She was just gone. I never saw her again.

For the first time in weeks, I broke down in tears. What would I become without her? Two days before bootcamp graduation, the lead instructor Sgt. Whitmer called the entire class to the head of the squad bay. As we sat cross-legged before her, she explained in painful detail that Sgt. Jones had been Court Marshaled and dismissed from the Marine Corps. There had been an administrative proceeding, but despite supportive testimony from other Marines, she had been given a dishonorable discharge.

Her crime? Sgt. Jones was gay.I was immediately sorry that she was gone.

But I had been raised “better”, I thought to myself. Despite what I had been before, I had been taught in my family’s church that being gay was a sin, something to be shunned. I was immediately confused, afraid and alone. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” I rationalized.

As a Marine, I married and started a family. I went on to become a broadcast journalist and public affairs officer in the Corps, and my training at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) is the very reason have been a Fortune 500 executive and a leader with multinational communications agencies.

Today, I have incredible children. I worked hard to make sure they avoided the easy lure of drugs, took advantage of a world-class education and lived lives worthy of celebration. Sgt. Jones’ lessons of discipline and integrity lived on with me and, by extension, my children. I struggled to forget that she was gay, and tried to remember the woman who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I never told my kids about Sgt. Jones, but her presence in our lives was all too real.

I am pleased to say that my oldest daughter Katherine stepped onto the campus of Brown University as a freshman two years ago. Thomas works for a cable network. Joshua is a budding actor and Haley is a talented photographer.

One evening a few years ago, the phone rang just as my younger children settled down for dinner. It was Katie. She was stolid. “Baby, what’s wrong?” I asked, fearing the worst. Was she failing? Had she been raped? Was it simply more “boy trouble”.

I wasn’t prepared for what came next. She took a long breath and said, “Mom, I’m gay.”

I immediately collapsed. “What did I do wrong?” I cried. “Mom, this isn’t about you,” she said.

I listened carefully, fighting off the desire to fly up to Rhode Island right then and there and bring her home. “I still like boys,” she said, as I pulled up the available flights. “I just like girls too.”

“It’s that damn liberal college,” I thought to myself. “I should’ve sent her to Emory,” I thought. My alma mater was a place where a young woman could get a good Southern education, as if there were no GLBT community there.

I wanted to scream. And I did. I cried myself to sleep that night. Visions of her new haircut raced through my head. The thought of my daughter sleeping with someone else’s daughter hurt me in ways I can never fully describe. We spoke little over the next few days. And when we did, I cried some more. I didn’t want her to have the life Sgt. Jones had. I wanted her to be “accepted”, to be “normal.” I didn’t want her to be drummed out of a job because of who or what she was. Sure, I had gay friends, but I wanted her to give up this “phase” and grow her hair back. My beautiful daughter with a head full of hair that even Linda Carter would envy now looked like a modern day Sinead O’Connor!

Didn’t she want to marry a man? Didn’t she want me to have the pleasure of grandchildren? What would our family think? Despite what I had achieved professionally, I felt like a failure. After all, we are an African-American family. As a community, I’ve noticed how we “accept” our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters — with silence — even as we have become the face of HIV/ AIDS. As a family, we never talked about my brother Don’s sexuality. He died died in 2005 after a lengthy battle with HIV/ AIDS and we simply chalked it up to drug use. Never mind that he’d spent time in the penal system and had contracted the disease there. That was two years ago.

Somewhere along the way, as Katie brought girlfriends home, I realized that I was the one with the problem. In time, even though I was still uneasy, we started to talk openly about her sexuality. All the cryptic, philosophical tattoos aside, I came to understand that, more so than at any other time, she needs me to be her mother — a mother who loves and accepts her sense of normal. To do that, I had to put aside the teachings of the church I grew up in and embrace my daughter — in full — in a way that I had never accepted my brother.

Katie celebrated her 21st birthday in early September. She is certainly a woman after my own heart. Bravely sure of herself, choiceful about of friends, committed to her education and among the most generous and loving people I know. She’s also a gifted writer and advocate. She watches and studies public policy as intensely as I do.

When I wrote the first draft of this piece, as the United States Senate took up a bill to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, enacted by the Clinton Administration, I sent Katie a text message. “Can I tell your story?” The answer was an immediate “yes.”

She knew just what I would say. I come to this page, loving my daughter and deeply respectful of the job Sgt. Jones signed up for. I come here, embracing their right to live out their “American Dream”. I will not argue lifestyle versus biological predisposition. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. But I will argue for their right to live and to love- and to serve. I know that our nation’s military is stronger because of men and women like Glenda Jones, just as much as I know that I am so very blessed to have a daughter like Katie and a brother like Don. I still miss his laugh. I hear it like a song in my heart.

Today, because Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman stood up and said it was time to change the law, the U.S. Senate voted for cloture. Meaning, the GOP won’t have the ability to block the vote to repeal with a filibuster. This afternoon, when the full Senate voted, the men and women of our Armed Services finally felt free to live, love and serve — equally — without regard to sexual orientation.

I do not know what ever became of Glenda Jones. I wish I knew.

But I do know that there are thousands of men and women like her who are willing to give their very lives for this country, our freedom and our way of life. To deny them that right, the right to live openly and pursue the career of their choice, is to deny ourselves a most precious gift. To deny them the right to serve openly in the Armed Services and yes, the right to marry, is to deny ourselves. The God I serve loves Glenda Jones, wherever she is. And I know that He loves my family and me too. Tonight, I salute you Glenda Jones. I thank you for lighting my path. My life is better because you came.

Semper Fi, Sgt. Jones.

To read more from Goldie Taylor, visit www.goldietaylor.com.