COMING OUT UNDER FIRE:
Justin Crockett Elzie Talks About His New Book “Playing By the Rules”.
United States Marine Corps Sergeant Justin Crockett Elzie may be forever branded as “the first Marine to be discharged under ‘Don‘t Ask, Don‘t Tell‘”. I prefer to use a more empowering title: “The first Marine to challenge ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”. Raised on a farm in Wyoming and enlisting in the military at age 20, the intelligent and articulate Elzie was an exemplary Marine. He consistently scored high marks in his military fitness reports. But this soldier realized that there was a far more personal battle which needed to be fought. Elzie came out in a big way in 1993– revealing that he was gay on ABC Evening World News. After being investigated and targeted for dismissal, Elzie challenged his pending discharge with a Federal lawsuit, and was re-instated. He wound up serving four years as an openly gay Marine before retiring in 1997. Elzie moved to New York City in 2009, where in his own words, he “adapted very well”. He is now working as an actor and a writer, and is a member of the bloggers’ conglomerate Queer New York (www.QueerNewYorkblog.blogspot.com). Crockett’s new book, “Playing By the Rules“ (Queer Mojo, 226 pages), is a memoir of his life as a gay man in the Marines. He now lives in downtown Brooklyn. When we met up for our interview, Justin took me on a mini-tour of his neighborhood, pointing out some buildings with exceptionally unique design and structure (Elzie is a big admirer of architecture.), and at one point making a stop at a priceless, best-kept-secret location which offered one of the City’s best views of Manhattan and beyond. Imagine that: A boy from Wyoming showing a Native New Yorker a new view of his own City! Later, at a neighborhood Starbucks, we talked for hours about his experiences in the Marines and his new book. One of the fun questions I ask is who Justin would like to play him in the inevitable movie version of “Playing By the Rules”… although, in my opinion, the eternally youthful Elzie could definitely play himself!
JR: A lot of people who have not ready the book yet view this as a sad or tragic story, with you as a victim: a soldier being discharged from the military for being gay. I didn’t get that as my sole impression when I read it. In fact, you make it a point to tell us about the rewards and joys of being in the military– the highs AS WELL AS the lows.
JCE: I’m glad that you got that out of the book. I was talking to a friend of mine who is an activist… and the problems that I have with some activists right now is that they take on the role of victimization, and they use words like “oppression”. It really bothers me. I am not a victim at all. This is what I wanted to tell people: I had played by the rules and then I said, “Enough is enough”. I was gonna fight what I saw was an injustice; not from a victim’s standpoint but rather from a standpoint of: “I belong, whether you think I belong or not.” I belonged here. I’ve earned the title. THEY had the problem. At the end of the day, I earned the title of United States Marine. That was my self worth and self-esteem, and no one was gonna take that away from me as a gay man. No way. I was just as good as any other Marine. Even today, I am sort of hesitant to get involved with some LGBT activists as I try and figure out what I am gonna do now. I see it’s a problem in our community: too many activists and other people see themselves as victims and not as taking that attitude of “We belong.” Stop using the term “oppression”. We’re not oppressed. We may not have the same rights as everyone else, but that’s something WE need to change. I think it’s because of how some people feel with discrimination. Some people go down the negative path of victimization versus taking it to empower themselves. . That’s one of the points I wanted to make with the book: You can be empowered to fight, not beaten down as a victim.
JR: Looking back, do you feel that your experiences may have, let’s say, left you with some emotional scars… or at the very least, left you a bit harder, emotionally?
JEC: We just went through the bill signing in December. Even back then when I came out, I wasn’t getting any help from any of the gay groups like some people do. Let me tell you something about the dynamics of the LGBT veterans groups and veterans: A lot of times when somebody comes out, they are seen as kind of a rebel. HRC would not touch Lieutenant Dan Choi, and neither would SLAN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) because he is very outspoken and speaks his mind… versus some other veterans, like the Air Force pilot Victor Fehrenbach or Air Force Major Mike Almy. SLDN promotes them and helps them. They are not as outspoken as Dan Choi, and they tow the LGBT veterans groups‘ line. Back then when I came out, I didn’t have any gay group helping me or supporting me. I had to find my attorneys on my own. I was very outspoken at the time, and when I walked out at the end of the bill signing ceremony this past month, I walked out alone. I was almost the last person in the building to leave. It was a really quick event, about 30 minutes. But I walked out alone, and didn’t get invited to any SLDN parties with the other veterans or anything. But that was fine. I realized that it was over for me in a lot of ways. I think when you asked the question about scars: I’ve really been dealing with this. A lot of us veterans are processing this and trying to really realize that the moment happened. I realize that I am my own man, and an individual, and a non-conformist– and I am going to move on and not let this bog me down. I am going to get past this. Some people will never get past this. They’re going to let those scars continue and keep re-living it over and over again. I realize that need to move on, and start out down the road in a new direction– alone. That’s the type of person I am. I have to strike out on that road alone. Do I have any regrets? No. I would do it all over again. The same thing. People ask me, Do I miss the Marine Corps? Yes and no. I mention that at some point that when I went to the Marine Corps Ball, I looked around and said “You know what? I’ve moved past this.” I’ve grown as a human being. I’ve outgrown the Marine Corps. People ask me if I’m gonna go back in if they get rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. I say no. Number one, I’m too old. This book is my last hurrah or statement about how I feel about the subject. It’s my living legacy for that. To me, that means I have to let go of it after this year. I am doing a book tour this year, and then I am going to move on. I need to move on. I would say that we all carry scars from our childhood, whether it’s from our parents, our mothers…
JR: Oh yes!
JCE: But I think it’s how we deal with that. When I walked out of that building, I was very reflective. It was a very poignant time as I walked down those marble steps out of that building toward the subway station getting ready to go back to New York, which I couldn‘t wait to do. I really felt, “You know what? This is over.” I was the only Marine to come out. There was no other Marines who came out at the time. You had several Navy guys, several Army folks, but only one Marine. I’m glad. If I hadn’t come out, no other Marines would have come out. I feel good that I came out at that point in time, and I think I made a difference!
JR: Of course you did! Now, what was your first reaction when you heard that “DADT” was overturned?
JCE: The vote? I saw the vote on television. I think that it really didn’t hit me until the signing ceremony. I will tell you this, and this is really important for a lot of people to know: There is still a lot of work to do. (Defense Secretary Robert) Gates has said over the last few weeks or so that the policy is still in place until they write new policies. If someone came out right now, they would still be discharged. So, the new policies have to be written. There has to be a 60 day wait, and then there’s supposed to be training. Of course, Gates has said that they needs to speed that along. This is why the Log Cabin Republicans’ court case against “DADT” is still being pushed forward. The military is still technically discharging people. I will tell you– this was actually written about last week on Towelroad– that the Log Cabin Republicans have told the government that they will drop their suit if the government will stop the discharges. The government said no. So, this isn’t over yet. I feel it’s for the younger folks now to carry this on. The other thing is that there’s no nondiscrimination policy yet. So, it’s gonna be on the younger folks who come along behind us now to really see that a nondiscrimination policy gets put in place.
JR: Another guy I know who served in the military made it a point that the biggest challenge for gay soldiers will be ensuring that their partners receive spousal benefits. That’s going to be a brand new challenge. He reiterated what you just stated: It’s a bit too early to be doing the celebratory lap dance just yet.
JCE: I would agree with him. There’s a lot of work to do. This is the problem today: So many people in the LGBT community hear one thing and run with that, so a lot of people right now think that it’s OK to go and join the military and be gay now. No. So many people who don’t read or keep up on things don’t know that there’s still a lot of work to do. He is very right. There’s still a lot of work to do.
JR: in addition to the issue of benefits for same-sex spouses, is there another issue that you feel is just as important?
JCE: Number one is stopping the discharges,. Right now, for someone to be discharged, it’s actually the Head of that branch of the military–the Navy or Marine or whatever– that has to do it now. But technically, it’s still on the books. So, stopping the discharges has to happen. And that has not happened yet. Number two, sexual orientation has to be out into the non-discrimination policy. As you know, all these Fortune 500 companies have sexual orientation non-discrimination policies. Part of the compromise by some gay lobbyists was that that provision was taken out. So, that’s gonna be something that has to be fought for over the next few years; that sexual orientation gets put in the military policy. The same as race or gender. Number three is gonna be benefits. I think that will come along as we move towards marriage quality in this country. You might have seen in the news today that someone said that DOMA is going to be hard to overturn in Congress. Duh. That’s a no-brainer. Here we have 70 to 80 percent of the American public agreeing that gays should serve openly in the military, and you have all our supporters in Congress– yet it was still hard to do. Now, look at DOMA. We’ve only got six states with marriage now, and nobody wanted to touch DOMA in Congress. Hell no. I don’t think a lot of gay people understand this: DOMA is not going to be touched by the Obama Administration. Not legislatively. There’s just no way. If we could only barely repeal “DADT” with this Congress, than there’s no way that DOMA will be overturned legislatively in this Administration. I’ve talked with a lot of gay activists and I would agree with them that the only way DOMA will be overturned is through the Courts. Then, I think you will see that third thing happen: benefits. You’ll see a softening of that because there have already been some articles through military publications about domestic partnership and some benefits. I think that will come slowly.
JR: When you decided to come out, you were facing something of two parallel battles: the fight to stay in the Marines, and concurrently the struggle for acceptance by those in your personal life as well.
JEC: Yes, there were some sub-themes in my book: The relationship with my parents, the relationship with the Marine Corps, and the relationship with my boyfriend and my other gay friends… all these dynamics.
JR: What’s your relationship with your family like now? In the book you tell us that you had a brother in the Marines who did not invite you to his wedding, and also a cousin who is in the Marines who you had a falling out with… both the result of your coming out. Has the relationship with your family improved at all since you wrote the book?
JCE: Let’s put it this way: I still haven’t to this day talked to my cousin. He’s still in the Marine Corps, and I know that he knows about the book– there was an book review done in “Military Times” this month, so he has to have seen it. We have the same last name. I don’t ever plan on talking to him. I just don’t see that happening. My brother and I do talk, and my parents and I talk. The only person in the family I have talked to about the book, though, is my sister. My parents and I have not talked about the book, and neither have my brother and I. To this day, my brother and I talk only about once a year. He’s conservative, living in Idaho. He basically saw it as: Why did I have to talk about my personal life, and why did I have to come out and tell everybody I was gay? Why couldn’t I just keep quiet about it? He just didn’t understand. He eventually apologized, in a way, for not inviting me to his wedding… with a caveat. I embarrassed him or whatever. So to this day, my parents and I talk probably about once a month. I say I love them, they say they love me… and it’s very… I don’t want to say “shallow”, but it’s very… did you ever talk to someone where all you say is, “How was your day?“ “That’s nice”. There’s no deep…
JR:… It sounds like you’d call it “skin deep” conversation…
JCE: Exactly. There’s no… I just don’t share with them to that deep level. First of all, there would be judgment. There’s just not a level of acceptance. It‘s a very shallow relationship, I feel. I mean, it’s amicable.
JR: I’ll be honest: Normally, in biographies and memoirs, I don’t particularly enjoy reading about people’s childhoods… but I was really touched when you were talking about your childhood in one chapter. You bring to light the very hot topic of bullying, when kids are bullied either because they are gay or are perceived as being gay.
JCE: The primary audience for my childhood chapter was straight adults, because I did not want them to treat their gay kids this way. That’s what I wanted. And, for them to accept their gay kids. For the gay kids, I wanted them to see that they CAN make it… and come out stronger. For gay adults, I want them to see that they were not the only ones who had gone through this. But again, the primary audience was straight adults because I did not want them to treat their gay kids like that.
JR: What has it been like adjusting to civilian life, especially in a city like New York, which can be difficult?
JCE: Being in the military, I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve lived in Finland, I’ve lived in Egypt… so I’ve been all over the world. I think New York is just another way of life. I’ve felt very at home here.
JR: For those of us who are not in the military: What can all of us do, on a day-to-day basis, to help the fight for equality in the military?
JCE: It’s all connected. Some people might ask, “Why are we fighting for rights in the military?” Their cause might instead might be for marriage equality, for example. I say, that once we get rights in the military, it will help marriage. The military is the most respected institution in this country right now. It is much more respected than our government, more than the Church. It brings a certain legitimacy that if we’re out there and we’re able to fight and die for our country, why shouldn’t we be able to get married? I always said this– I wrote this in the book, you might remember: Let‘s take a guy who grows up in Mississippi, and he’s never been introduced to gay people, but now he goes to the military and he has to work with somebody who’s gay. When he gets out of the military and goes back to Mississippi, it opened his eyes having to work in that environment and then to go back to Mississippi. We‘ve always known that people who know someone who’s gay are more likely to support us in our equality. That’s the one unique thing about the military. It brings people from all 50 states into one environment. If you have people from all 50 states going to work with someone who’s gay and then going back to their hometowns, it actually helps us in our equality in all areas. Getting rights is the military is tied to marriage. It’s tied to hate crimes legislation. It’s tied to immigration equality. So, I think that just because you’re not in the military doesn’t mean that you can’t help out. Whatever other issue you work for– let’s say, for marriage equality– then you’re helping with the military issue as well. Once you change somebody’s mind on one issue for equality, you’re also changing their mind on the military issue. When we look at equality, it’s all tied together. What can people do? Work wherever you believe that you can make a difference. Change people’s minds, so that when they do have a gay kid, let’s say, and they hear about the issue of gays in the military, then they’re that much more open to the issue. So, you don’t always have to speak to that one issue. Work in whatever area where you feel you can make a difference. Everybody can make a difference in the community in many areas: marriage, immigration equality, AIDS awareness. Everybody has their own role to play. I think that‘s one of the things that a lot people don‘t realize. Anybody can do just as much as the other person. Nobody‘s special. We’re all connected!
You can connect with Justin at http://www.JustinCrockettElzie.com.
“Playing By The Rules” is available from Amazon.com here.