By BILL HESS
Sierra Vista Herald
SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. – For years, Navy Lt. Gary Ross had to lie about who he is in order to serve the nation.
And joining him in what can be described as sanctioned lies was his partner and now husband–at least according to Vermont law–Dan Swezy.
But disguising his sexuality behind the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which went into effect on Dec. 21, 1993, about two years before Gary enlisted in the Navy, was difficult because he knew who he was, but the services did not want to know.
Until Sept. 20, he was bound by the policy which he said, “Means I had to lie, all the time. I had to lie daily. I had to lie as an officer.”
Although the military frowns on lying, it was alright to do so under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” system, Gary said.
And for Dan, his affection for his partner of a dozen years meant he, too, had “to disguise my connection to Gary.”
Many times, when the two were in a store or another public place with a person who knew the Navy lieutenant, who has the equal rank of an Army, Air Force or Marine captain, a game had to be played, meaning Dan would walk away so as not to be connected with Gary.
But with the official lifting of DADT, non-straight service members are allowed to openly serve.
It has increased the pair’s social circle by bringing in military functions which they can jointly attend, but in the past could have caused Gary problems, if not outright dismissal from the armed forces.
Recently, the pair attended the Marine Corps Ball on Fort Huachuca, and other events sponsored by the unit Gary is assigned to, the Department of Defense Joint Interoperability Test Command, on the southern Arizona Army post.
Speaking of going to the ball, Gary said he was told by a number of Marines assigned to JITC that he and Dan should attend.
Going to the post’s Marine Detachment to purchase tickets for the event, Gary said the young sergeant working the event noticed “my wedding band.
Since he was purchasing two tickets, the Marine asked “what my wife’s name was and I told him my husband was Dan,” which led to a short look of confusion until the Marine recovered and simply said, “thank you.”
The ball was probably the first one a gay couple decided to attend, Gary said.
Both said they heard no disparaging remarks about them at the ball, although it was said some retired Marines were not happy about Gary and Dan attending.
“We never heard anything,” Dan said.
The reaction from his co-workers has been one of acceptance, Gary said, noting the training the military did before DADT ended helped to prepare military members of all ranks for the change of what previously was a straights-only acceptance within America’s armed forces, although historically gays have served in the military services in the past, usually in a sub rosa state.
For some time, their private lives also meant keeping a secret about their sexual orientation.
But eventually both came out to their families, and while for Gary it was not as difficult, for Dan it was when it came to his older brother.
The 49-year-old Dan said, “I told my parents in 1987. When I told them they were a little bit agitated.”
After talking for a while about Dan’s announcement, he said his father, a conservative Christian, said, “You’re my son. I love you. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.”
But Dan’s mother, while eventually accepting his sexual orientation “still struggles a little bit,” wondering if she did something wrong, which of course, she didn’t, he said.
While two of his brothers accepted his announcement, Dan said his oldest brother hasn’t yet and they remain estranged to this day.
For Gary, who is now 34 years old, his announcement to his family in 1996, when he was 18 and after serving in the Navy as an enlisted sailor for a year, was surprisingly complete acceptance.
“My mother took me to a gay club,” and told me to have a good time, he said.
Laughing, Gary said, “I think she was interested in the type of man I liked.”
While now openly serving as a gay naval officer- Gary is a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy- he said he has found it interesting that during his career he often was tasked to do sensitivity training when it came to DADT issues, as well as training other GIs to help them through the end of DADT.
Even though they knew the restrictions involving DADT were coming to an end, they were careful not to officially come out before the program ended, which happened just after midnight, Eastern time, on Sept. 20.
Saying he asked for leave, telling his JITC command he was going to Vermont, Gary said he did not tell anyone in JITC what the leave was for.
Their plan was to marry shortly after midnight, seconds after the day turned from Sept. 19 to Sept. 20.
Vermont was chosen because the state allows same-sex partners to marry and was the first state to allow it.
Gary said he knows his command at JITC was upset when they read about the marriage in newspapers, but they were not angry because of the marriage, just that they were not informed.
We had to keep it a secret as long as we could in case there were last minute changes in which the policy would not end, the pair said.
Gary said the ceremony began 15 minutes before midnight.
The officiating justice of peace kept an eye on a clock, not wanting to declare them married until Sept. 20 was official.
He watched the clock and at 12:01 a.m. he said “I declare you married,” Gary said, making him and Dan the first same-sex couple, with one of them a serving member of the military, to be wed.
Gone was DADT.
However, the pair said they and others in their circumstances in America’s armed forces still have another long, hard road to travel to obtain benefits which are being denied them because they are same sex partners. Even though they are married, such a union is not universally recognized in most states, including Arizona.
They are registered domestic partners in California, where both unmarried same sex and heterosexual couples can sign up for the program.
For them, the next battle for equality, something the pair strongly believes is a constitutional right regardless of sexual preferences, is to have the same benefits of heterosexual married couples.
And while they may want to adopt a child, they both said that, too, is some time off.
They are part of a lawsuit filed by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network seeking redress of what they consider being unfairly denied obtaining benefits given to straight couples who are married.
One of the major issues is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between and man and a women, which the pair, and others, believe is unconstitutional, since marriage laws are a state rights responsibility and not be federally controlled.
In a column “Military Update” by Tom Philpott, who writes about military issues, which is published in the Herald/Review, it was noted some benefits are allowed but some are not, such as military family housing, health care, full survivor benefits, ID cards, access to commissaries and exchanges and morale, welfare and recreation activities.
Philpott’s column did state the Department of Defense is reviewing programs seeking to determine if additional benefits, beyond 14 which currently are allowed, can be permitted under federal existing laws.
To Gary and Dan, the need is to revise current laws, which are stumbling blocks to married equality regardless of whether it is same-sex of heterosexual unions.
During their time together, they had to ensure their actions did not lead to Gary’s dismissal from the Navy.
And, if the lieutenant did deploy- for Dan there was always a fear something might happened to his partner- Dan would not be allowed to visit him in a military hospital if he was recuperating from combat wounds. If he died, they would not have any rights to determine, as a straight couple can, the deposition of Gary’s remains.
Even when Gary returned from deployments, Dan would not go ship side to meet him, fearing people would put things together and then an investigation would begin.
On one deployment return, Dan parked in a civilian parking lot more than a mile away from the ceremony.
About the next fight for rights given to heterosexual couples in the military, Dan said “we can’t live with just partial rights.”
To which Gary said, “We’re not looking for special privileges, just the same straight couples have.”