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Mike Brazell's Life in
the Modern Navy


Mike Brazell and Denny Meyer

Mike Brazell joined the United States Navy, right out of high school, at the age of 18.  He served honorably for ten years, recently from 1996 to 2006, as an Operations Specialist handling such things as radar, ship navigation and message traffic.  When he left the service, he was a Petty Officer First Class (E-6) and was an instructor teaching his skills to new recruits.  He is gay and nearly all of his peers in the Navy knew that and worked alongside him and socialized with him; he never encountered overt discrimination.  And yet, even with the affirmation and full acceptance of his peers, the prevailing officially endorsed environment of discrimination ultimately led him to leave the service for freedom.   The loss of his experience, knowledge, training, and leadership is worth a fortune.  The skills and abilities he developed in the Navy were so advantageous that when he leapt from his Navy career, he had a leading position in a proactively inclusive civilian organization even before his feet hit the ground outside.

Mike grew up in South America and later in a small town in South Carolina.  In his multi-ethnic and bilingual home, loving intelligent egalitarianism prevailed.  An yet, life in a small South Carolina town in the 1990s was still not a place where a young gay man could be himself.  He joined the Navy to seek freedom, to escape the confines of small town life, and to see the world.  Remarkably, all of that came true for him, not in small part due to the strength of his own character.

Mike joined the armed forces out of patriotism as well, wanting to do his part in serving his country; influenced partly by the mystique of the Navy; but primarily by his stepfather and one of his teachers, who were  Vietnam Vets.

His first two assignments were on guided missile destroyers.  He was first based in Tokyo Japan, and later in San Diego, CA.  As with many young gay men since World War II, his first true coming out was while he was in the service, out in the world away from home.  In Japan, he went out with other gay sailors, some of whom wore quite fashionable cloths and even carried-on and camped gayly  while off duty out on the town at night.  Some of these young sailors maintained a rather overt campy demeanor even while on duty in the shipboard environment.  No one seemed to care; the one thing they all had in common was doing their jobs well, and that was what seemed to be the only thing that mattered.  This attitude amongst peers and immediate superiors down at the real world level of human interaction, distant from the ideological concepts of pseudo-morality of administration politics, reflected the changing attitudes in America and amongst service members.  A recent Zogyby poll revealed that fully 75 percent of young service members were totally unconcerned about the sexual orientation of their peers.  Indeed, even straight fellow sailors went out socializing, regularly, with him and his more overtly gay friends.

Remarkably, in the moralizing homophobic era of the current administration, aboard these Navy ships gay sailors lived openly and fully accepted by their peers.  And so, Petty Officer Brazell bravely reenlisted, after four years, for another six year tour of duty in the United States Navy.  He knew that there was a risk that things might not always be so much like the family atmosphere aboard the smaller naval vessels on which he had served; that the constrained closet of serving in silence might be required to survive on shore duty.  And yet, despite all that and having a long term lover, he continued his service in the Navy which had become his career.  He had had encouraging experiences in which homophobic peers had "changed their minds" and come to see him and other gay shipmates as simply ordinary fellow sailors.

Yet, on shore duty, in his final assignment as an instructor, the atmosphere lacked the unit cohesion of shipboard life; it was more policy driven, i.e., more homophobic.  There was the assumption, amongst some of his fellow instructors, that it was perfectly acceptable, and officially approved of, for them to make common crude homophobic remarks and express contempt for homosexuals and for some student seamen whom they assumed were homosexual.  He knew enough to feel constrained in this situation.  His Camelot life ceased and the closet door closed for the first time in his experience.

With his future civilian employer clamoring for his service as a clever openly gay employee, there was no reason for this highly skilled young man in his late twenties to spend one more day than he was obligated to in the Navy.  His only regret was in leaving the new young gay recruit students in the hands of the homophobes who would certainly not provide the positive healthy experience he had had in his early years in the Navy.

After he began his civilian life as an openly gay activist speaking out publicly for rights; he heard from some straight former peers in the service to whom he had not been out.  They were deeply offended, not at having unknowingly served with a homosexual but, because he had not seen fit to be open with them!

It would seem quite clearly that the time has come for Pentagon policymakers and Congressional lawmakers to catch up with reality and remove the ban on open gay service by patriotic American volunteers.

Mike Brazell is a campaign coordinator for PETA, the animal rights organization.