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Profiles in Patriotism

Leslie Pope
Serving Openly

Introduction by Denny Meyer

Leslie Pope, a Navy Avionics Petty Officer, had a uniquely unusual experience during her four years in service to her nation; she was treated with integrity and respect for who she was  by her peers and superiors.  During her tour of duty aboard the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, there was ongoing training in respectful behavior.  Personnel were carefully counseled by senior NCOs to be considerate of others and to moderate behavior that could disturb the professional working environment.  All this, aboard a ship in a war zone in the Persian Gulf.  When she came out, she received nothing but support and understanding from peers and superiors.  What this demonstrates is that  all patriotic volunteers can serve their country  when a commander is committed to the  affirmation of every sailor's dignity in the fullness  of his or her humanity, free of harassment and discrimination, regardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and other identities that mark the rich diversity of Americans serving their nation.  It seems clear the the most recent Captain of the Kennedy should be commended for having created an environment in which all sailors had the secure freedom to work to the best of their ability.

In an interview, she told me that she grew up in a religious Missouri home where homosexuality was a taboo, despite the family's acceptance of a gay uncle.  It was her first years in service to her country, she said, that gave her the maturity to come out to herself; as has been the case for so many others. "I grew up a lot in the Navy; I got self discipline and became motivated and learned to pace myself; I have no fear of challenge."   In a bit of intentional humor about herself, she said that she realized she was gay after she wrecked her pick-up truck while 'checking out a girl.'  (I don't know, maybe that's more Southern than anything else; -editor).

Aboard ship, where she served one tour in the Persian Gulf, she worked in avionics on aircraft fire control radar.  She left the Navy at the end of her enlistment for the usual reasons: She had gained the experience she had wanted, had served her country, and realized that being gay in the service would be stressful in future assignments, to say the least.  For her brave and honorable service to her country, Petty Officer Pope earned a Sea Service Ribbon, a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary  medal,  a Global War on Terrorism Service medal, a National Defense Service medal, and Aviation worker specialist wings.  In her own words, she tells her story:

Leslie Pope
Navy Veteran

Where should I even begin to describe the past four years of my life in the United States Navy?  Were they horrible? No.  Were they the best years of my life?  Maybe not, but so far; they could be the most interesting.

I entered military service in 2002 just after I finished high school.  I didn't have any money for college and was chomping at the bit to get out of my small, Midwestern hometown.  At that time I didn't know I was a lesbian.  I only knew that I was different somehow and I needed to find out why.  Strange that I decided to join the navy, huh?  How stereotypical.

In the fall of 2005 and not so long ago, I finally came out of my denial and also "came out."  It was a large step and the men I worked with (I was the only woman in my workcenter) on the ship were among the people who learned of this.  The guys I worked with everyday were (and still are) some of my closest friends.  We lived together, fought together, and played together.  Our relationships were very close and I couldn't bear avoiding them or avoiding them or sneaking around.  I made a decision to tell them my big secret.  That was and is still a big mistake in the military.

Soon, word spread like wildfire in my workcenter that I had come out of the closet.  Within a few days my supervisors knew.  Well, not all of my supervisors found out about my life.  The wildfire seemed to stop at my cheif. (who is an E-7 in the navy).  If anyone else above him found out about me, I never knew.  It is safe to assume no officers learned of this.  To my surprise, no one seemed to care.  My co-workers were curious and some came to me for personal advice.  After a while the conversation about my personal life was of course limited but occasionally I would be asked about how my girlfriend was doing and told at the end of every work week to be careful on the road...since she lived two hours away and I would visit her every weekend.  My girlfriend was a big part of my life and I believe my shipmates realized how happy I was with her.  On days when I had to work longer hours or couldn't leave the ship she would call me on the ship's phone and we would talk for quite a while.  My supervisors never complained because their own wives would call to check on them.

When my enlistment was coming to an end, because I chose to not re-enlist, I approached my own chief and asked for advice about coming out to my mother.  Of course our conversation was very private but his advice led to another large step in my life.  He told me that it would be hard, but I must trust my mother's love and it will get better.  Great advice.

I know how fortunate I am that I was out while in the military and somehow slipped through the cracks.  I was not afraid of any consequences of being honest about myself.  When  asked if I am gay I would answer, "Yes.  I am."  The policy is "Don't Ask.  Don't Tell ".  I just figured that if  the rules of asking can be broken, then I will tell when asked.

My co-workers, my shipmates, were the best anyone could ask for.  They were supportive and as understanding as possible.  My orientation didn't matter.  What mattered was that I did my job and performed in a manner that was expected.  I was an efficient sailor and that is really all anyone cared about.  That is exactly the way our entire military should be.  I believe it will be that way one day because our country needs us now to serve.  Freedom needs us to fight for the right to serve openly.  And humanity needs to heed my chief's advice.  It will be hard, but you must believe it will get better.