Rankin, M.D., Capt., MC, USN (Ret.)
Norfolk Town Hall Speech
Norfolk, Va. July 29, 2006
When I joined the Navy in
the on July 1, 1964, I fully expected to serve my
two year obligation, then leave to begin private
Thirty four years later,
when I actually did retire, the Navy sent me a
nice letter thanking me for my service, and asking
one small favor. In the future, when I speak to a
group of military women and men, or to any
audience about military issues, would I please do
so in uniform?
I have proudly honored
that request, because I am proud to have had the
privilege of serving this nation that I love so
much as a Navy medical officer, even though I had
to serve those 34 years in silence.
We are here to
talk about "Don’t Ask Don’t
Tell," and its negative impact, not
only on gay and lesbian service members,
but on the nation as a whole, at a time
when our military is stretched so thin,
when new crises demanding new responses,
including military responses, seem to
arise almost daily. When it borders on the
criminal for the military to deny
patriotic young Americans of the highest
caliber the right to serve because of
their sexual orientation, yet be willing
to enlist not only those who failed
academically, but even convicted felons.
We see in the case of Steven Green and his
buddies in Mahmundiya how well that worked
Every one of us on this
panel served honorably, despite the prejudice
against us. We stayed on active duty or in the
active reserves, living with that prejudice, for
many reasons. I know I decided to stay after I met
and attempted to help two gay men, one a young
sailor at Gitmo, the other a Marine corporal in
My first Navy tour of
duty was with a destroyer division based in
Newport. Soon after I reported aboard, our ships
headed for Guantanamo Bay for refresher training.
One morning after sick
call a young sailor asked to see me privately. He
was troubled about something and having difficulty
saying what it was, Finally he blurted it out—he
thought he might be gay. No, nobody was hassling
him about it—his shipmates didn’t suspect. No,
he didn’t want to get out of the Navy. His ship
had become his home, a far better one than his
family’s hardscrabble Kentucky farm. No, he didn’t
think he was mentally ill. Then what was the
problem? It was a religious one. He thought God
would condemn him for being attracted to men.
I told Eli that wasn’t
my understanding about the way God worked in the
world, but I’m Jewish and he was Protestant—he
should see a Protestant chaplain. He agreed. Our
ship’s chaplain would have handled it
beautifully, but he was on leave, so I sent him to
the Protestant chaplain on base, a man I’d never
met. We’d talk afterwards if he wanted to
The next day our ship’s
softball team played a team from another ship. In
those days the ballpark was very near the fence
which separates the base from Cuba proper. The
Cubans had also erected a fence. Between the two
was a mine field.
Eli played center field
on our team. Early in the first inning the play
suddenly stopped. He had somehow gotten over the
fence and was standing in the mine field. His
division CPO climbed the fence and held him tight
until we could get a map of the mine placement and
bring them safely out.
In sick bay I asked him
what had happened. The chaplain had confirmed his
worst fears. God would indeed send him to hell for
his homosexual feelings, though he had never acted
on them. Suicide was preferable to a lifetime of
guilt and shame.
I transferred the seaman
to the Navy hospital in Philadelphia, to a
colleague I met at the Naval Academy at Annapolis,
where BUMED sent us for a three week orientation
for new medical officers. Later Jeff and I would
organize a sort of medical underground, a group of
GLBT physicians, nurses, and corpsmen—and
straight colleagues with integrity—whom we knew
would be treat our gay and lesbian patients well.
This was the first time we knew we needed one.
And I never again
referred a sailor to a chaplain I didn’t know.
Eli was my first
experience with the plight of gays in the
military. The second would come a few months
later, when I was assigned to a Marine Force Recon
unit in I Corps in Vietnam.
We had an RTO corporal in
our unit who was a mechanical genius. Bill alone
could keep the radios working even in the monsoon
rains; he was our lifeline. It was Bill who called
in the helicopters to evacuate our wounded.
Mistaking a sergeant’s
friendliness for something more, Bill slipped him
an affectionate note one afternoon when we
returned to base after a firefight, suggesting
they go on R&R together in Nha Trang..
Outraged, the sergeant took the note to the unit
commander, who called me in.
"He’s the best
radioman we have, Doc," the first lieutenant
said, "but he’s queer. We can’t have him
in the squad. See him and start the discharge
I spent an hour with the
crestfallen and embarrassed young man. I would
never assign a "diagnosis" of
homosexuality to a perfectly healthy military man
or woman, even at a time when homosexuality was
still listed in psychiatry’s Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual. I wrote up the case as mild
depression, which was fine with the lieutenant. We
sent Bill to the Navy hospital in Yokosuka, Japan
for "treatment" and discharge. Several
weeks later, in Hong Kong, I ran into him at the
China Fleet Club, where we were both buying
cameras."What are you doing here, Bill,"
I asked? "Didn’t they send you home?"
"Nah Doc—when they
need you they keep you. They just transferred me
to a unit in the Delta.
When they need you they
keep you. If only that were true today. Tragically
it is not. The stop order does not apply to gay
men and lesbians, even if they are fluent Arabic
speaking linguists who have observed the policy to
the letter, and are eager to serve in Iraq.
At my wife’s urging, I
left active duty, but I stayed in the Navy
Reserves, drilling one weekend a month and two
weeks in the summer. I understood by then that it
was important for GLBT sailors to have someone
they could trust to talk to. Sometimes I saw
active duty sailors—and Army, Air Force,
Marines, and members of the Coast Guard as well
sent to me by savy corpsmen and officers—in my
office ashore, so nothing would go into their
active duty files.
. In the late l970’s I
began to hear horror stories of the insensitive
treatment my fellow Vietnam veterans were
receiving at VA hospitals from staff who hadn’t
a clue what we had been through over there. Like
many of my medical colleagues who had served in
that terrible war, I joined the staff of a VA
hospital, in my case in San Francisco and Oakland.
I would remain a VA doc for 18 years..
The years passed. I dealt
with my own Vietnam demons, got a divorce, came
out as a gay man, co-founded the Gay and Lesbian
Medical Association, chaired the National Jewish
Committee on HIV and AIDS, joined the board of the
San Francisco AIDS Foundation—and lost a lover
Some of this was reported
in the papers, but the Navy took no official
notice. Promotions came when they should have. I
was open in my professional life, and discrete in
my personal life. As an 0-6 combat veteran, and a
VA physician caring for those who had served in
all our wars since WWII, I was harder to discharge
than a BM II, much less a deck
Still, even in those
pre-"Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" days,
when there was a live and let live attitude in
many commands, this was too good to last, and it
By l988, I was in zone
for promotion to flag rank—rear Admiral. I’d
done everything necessary to be promoted and more.
One day in May I got a call from the Navy District
Admiral inviting me to lunch at the Nimitz Club on
Treasure Island. This is it, I thought—I made
it! I alerted my friends to get ready for a
There would be no
celebration. "You know Doc," the Admiral
told me over his fish and chips, "you’re a
fine officer (where had I heard that before), but
the Navy just doesn’t promote single men to flag
"Single men." I
got the message. It was time to go. I submitted my
retirement papers, effective two
months hence. I wanted them to have time to find a
replacement for the ship, and I wanted to leave
having been in for a full 24 years active duty and
The following drill
weekend, in mid-June, the ship was tied up at the
pier at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. We
had just started lunch in the wardroom when Lt.
j.g. Jones rushed in out of breath.
"Permission to join
the mess, Captain," he panted. "Sorry to
be late sir—a couple faggots wanted a tour of
the ship and I had to chase them away."
All morning we’d been
offering tours to families and to young women
eager to meet a sailor. This was routine when we
were not underway. The Navy considered these
ship visits great public
relations, as long as the visitors were
heterosexual families and single women. Men who
might be gay need not apply.
Lieutenant," the captain replied. "Take
your seat." Conversation around the table
I sat there seething,
staring at my plate. Faggot. Faggot. It rang in my
ears. And I began to remember all the times during
the 24 years when I’d listened without comment
to shipboard homophobic slurs and
I thought of all the
conversations started, in sickbay or on the bridge
at sea, and then broken off, because a shipmate
wasn’t sure I wouldn’t turn him in if he told
me his secret. I thought of the gutsy sailors who
did take the risk, because of their own courage,
and because scuttlebutt had it—correctly for
once-- that what was said in my sickbay stayed
there. I was safe to talk to.
But so often I had
remained silent in my medical office, letting
those who needed to talk "teach me"
about gay life. For whatever reason, I couldn’t
simply say "I understand. I’m gay too. I
know what it’s like to come out to a close
friend or family member who’s promised ‘unconditional
love,’ only to find that love wasn’t so
unconditional after all. I know about being in the
closet at work, making up fictitious dates with
the opposite sex. And buddy I know exactly what it’s
like to lose a lover—it hurts like hell."
Those empathetic words remained largely unsaid.
The Navy was my last closet—until that June
lunch in the wardroom.
Sitting at the table with
those men, I felt my cool rationality slipping
away. I ceased to be a medical officer and a role
model for the corpsmen under my command. I was no
longer a psychiatrist trained to understand
motivation and behavior. I had no more excuses for
all the young officers who responded to peer
pressure with pathetic attempts to be "more
macho than thou." And I had no more excuses
for my own silence; that silence was compliance.
Right there in the
wardroom, before God and the whole U.S Navy, I
became simply one pissed off queer.
Facing the immediate
source of my discontent, who was happily eating
away, I commented in what I thought was a quiet
conversational tone of voice, "Lt. Jones, I
was offended by your use of the word ‘faggot.’
Using that word is like calling someone a nigger,
a spick, wop, kike or cunt. It automatically
defines one as a bigot. Bigotry, Lieutenant, is
not a quality the Navy usually looks for when it
selects its officers for promotion. Now that you
know that, I’m sure you’ll not use the term
He sat there with the
chipped beef on his fork, halfway between his
plate and his open mouth. The other officers
looked from him to me and back, speechless.
For about fifteen long
seconds I felt like I’d just told the dentist,
"oh forget the novocaine, just go ahead and
drill," one of those remarks you instantly
want to retract.
But I couldn’t retract
it. It hung there in the air. I thought if I didn’t
say something to get us past the moment, the room
would explode. "Captain, would you please
pass the catsup" I asked calmly? "My
beef’s a little tough." The captain passed
the catsup, there were sighs of relief, and the
talk turned again to the Niners vs the Raiders.
The enlisted men serving
the food were hanging onto every syllable; the
word was all over the ship in about a minute.
That afternoon nothing
much happened, except I imagined a couple sailors
who’d been friendly in the past were a bit cool.
I saw a few patients, gave a VD lecture, and went
Sunday morning sick call
consisted mainly of the usual requests for
hangover relief. I sent the corpsmen below decks
to inventory medical supplies in our storerooms,
and had settled back to read Architectural Digest
when Charlie, the ship’s bosn’s mate, knocked
on the sickbay door and came in. "How ya
doing Doc" he asked?
"Fine Boats—can I
help you with something? A little too much
partying last night?" I reached for the
fine. Just wanted to see how you were doing."
He shook my hand and left.
A few minutes later
another sailor entered, his hands full of candy
bars and peanuts. "Hi Doc, I thought maybe
you didn’t get your gedunk from ship’s store
before it closed."
"Thanks a lot
Warren. I didn’t. Let me pay you for
treat." He headed down the passageway toward
his bunk for a quick nap before ship’s work
Puzzled, I returned to my
reading. Before long, without knocking, Eddie
shoved open the door and stood before me, his
face, hands, jeans and t-shirt covered with grease
as usual, not surprising for a "snipe"
who worked in the boiler room.
"How the *** are you
Doc? Do you like cigars?"
"I thought so. Here’s
a *** box of ** Cubans. Buddy of mine in the
Canadian Navy gets them for me."
let me pay you for these. They must have set you
back a week’s pay!"
"Shut the *** up
Doc. They’re yours. Enjoy."
And off he went back to
his beloved engineering spaces, leaving grease on
The second Sunday in
July, l988, I left the Navy. I saw my last
patient, closed my medical bag, and headed for the
I don’t know what I
expected. Maybe someone, perhaps the captain,
would be there to wish me a fair wind and a
following sea, the traditional Navy words of
farewell. The captain remained in his cabin, as
did the executive officer.
I saluted the Officer of
the Deck, a young jg who’d been at the wardroom
table that memorable Saturday. "Permission to
go ashore!" "Permission granted."
I saluted the ensign flag
on the stern, and walked down the gangplank to the
pier. It was over.
Well—not quite. A week
or so later I got a call from Eddie. He and his
"better half" were having a barbecue at
the trailer park where they lived—would I come?
Why not, I thought? I was
out of the Navy now—I could have dinner with
Eddie and his wife and friends with no qualms
about "fraternization with enlisted men"
I arrived at the trailer
park to find three long tables set up outside,
with starched table cloths, china, glasses, and
silverware which, if not expensive, all matched,
unlike my own. Eddie’s "better half"
was a merchant seaman named Fred who greeted their
guests and kept the beer flowing while Eddie
Charlie and Warren were
there, as were the other gay sailors from the
ship, some with their partners, about 20 in all.
We ate some of the best
steaks I’ve had in my life, followed by a good
port, good cigars, and a mercifully brief toast
"Doc," he said,
"we just *** wanted to say ***thanks. Thanks
sir. Thanks shipmate."
If you think I was too
proud to show emotion in front of those men, think
again. I was too proud not to!
There were painful and
difficult times under the military’s homophobic
policy, both before "Don’t Ask Don’t
Tell" and now. Yes, I would do it all over
again, but why should the men and women in today’s
military have to put up with such bigotry when all
the rationales for it—especially the old unit
cohesion argument—have long since been disproven
and discarded in other militaries most like ours.
They shouldn’t. I hope gatherings like this will
help bring a time when "Don’t Ask Don’t
Tell" will be relegated to the ash heap of
history, like the military’s official
discrimination against women, African Americans,
and other minorities. It can’t come a day too
soon. Thank you.
Mike Rankin, M.D., Capt.,
MC, USN (Ret.)
Norfolk, Va. 7-29-06