Arts & Entertainment

First Gay Iraq War Memoir

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An interview with Rob Smith, author of ‘Closets, Combat and Coming Out’ 
by Jed Ocot

Author and veteran Rob Smith
Author and veteran Rob Smith

Jed Ocot: What inspired you to write your memoir, Closets, Combat and Coming Out?
Rob Smith: I was inspired to write Closets, Combat and Coming Out because I knew there was a story to tell that hadn’t been told before. Most of the images we see of soldiers are straight white guys, and even in the LGBT Veterans’ movement it is mostly officers that you see. I thought that people would welcome this story about a kid from the Midwest that enters into the Army and experience a ground-level view of what military life was really like for a young gay guy in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. My experience as an African-American in the Army—and especially in Iraq—is something that is very rarely, if ever, dealt with, and I’m so pleasantly surprised by the diverse group of people that are discovering the book and connecting to it.

What was the writing process like for you?
Writing this book was difficult. I’m physically and mentally now a very strong person, but I had to go back to a place where I was much weaker and relive a few things that were frightening and very painful. I wrote nonstop for about six months, and it was like I was reliving everything I deal with in the book, from the time spent in Iraq to the hardcore Infantry basic training to the awkwardness of my first gay sexual encounters. It took a lot out of me, but the response has been so overwhelmingly positive that it’s all been worthwhile.

Not only is your memoir the first gay Iraq war memoir post DADT-repeal, but it’s also the first African-American Iraq war memoir. Why do you think this is?
I think there are a great many African-American and LGBT veterans out there that have some pretty amazing and truly eye-opening stories to tell, but 2014 is a rough time to try to get ANY story out there. The publishing industry is quite complicated nowadays. It is completely driven by celebrity and appealing to the widest possible mainstream audience and timid about publishing stories that may be a bit different from the norm. I know personally of some other veterans that tried to get their stories out there but were rejected so many times they gave up. I was told flat out by a major publisher that “nobody is going to care about this.”

The truth is that if we as LGBT people don’t make a real effort to get our stories out there and support them, then we’re doomed to not have records of the part that we play in American history.  I’m proud that Closets, Combat and Coming Out is being released via an LGBT-focused publisher and that it’s finding a home in progressive bookstores in major markets as well as on Amazon for folks that may live in areas with no LGBT bookstores or even a local LGBT paper or magazine. I interact with a lot of people on twitter and always urge them to try to get the book from their local LGBT bookstore if possible. It is important that we support these institutions so that they survive not only as businesses but also as meeting places.

ClosetsFrontCoverDo you think your memoir will inspire others to do the same?
I truly do hope so. I know that there are some amazing and inspiring stories out there, and I look forward to reading and supporting them.

What was your reaction to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
I was at the DADT-repeal signing, and I very specifically remember thinking “we won.” If we did that, we can do anything when it comes to LGBT rights.  I’m pretty vocal about the fact that the fight for LGBT veterans and soldiers didn’t end with DADT repeal, which in my opinion doesn’t go far enough in protecting LGB active duty soldiers and allowing Transgender soldiers to serve, but it’s a pretty great start, and I know that it galvanized and motivated the LGBT rights movement.

What’s your advice for those who struggle with their sexuality and coming out?
Everyone comes out in his or her own time, and I think that it is a decision that should be borne of empowerment and not pressure or desperation. I speak to a lot of LGBT youth struggling with this, and I can only truly speak to the fact that coming out is not always a perfect event, but being able to live your life openly and honestly about who you are is the most freeing thing there is, and the best gift an LGBT person can give to themselves.

Do you plan on writing any more books?
Absolutely. There is a non-fiction idea I have that I’m quite excited about right now. It seems kind of obvious, and I’m shocked that it hasn’t really been done yet, but perhaps this will be yet another first for me! I’m gonna put a lot of energy into working on it this coming summer. For now though, it’s all about Closets, Combat and Coming Out and making sure that as many people as possible can read the book, start conversations about it, and recommend it to their friends!

Closets, Combat, and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Army by Rob Smith is available from Regal Crest (regalcrest.biz), Bella Books (bellabooks.com), Barnes & Noble (barnesandnoble.com), and Amazon (amazon.com).

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