Commentary

Unconditional love tested by ‘don’t ask, don’t tell'

My hand reached for the phone, my fingers trembling as I dialed. A ring. Another ring. The third cut short as I heard the warm voice of home and reassurance.

“Hello,” my mom answered.

“I have something to tell you. I’m gay.”

At the time, it felt like a confession tumbling out of my mouth, quick and heavy. Still, it left me out of breath. I dreaded that moment — the fear that unconditional love would suddenly become conditional.

“I’m gay.” It had lived in my heart for so long, immovable.

So many others have experienced the same fear and shame. Yet in this moment, we are alone again, waiting for what comes next after months or years of preparing for the worst until the worst becomes the expectation.

When Allen Schindler Jr. told his mother, she thought he was confused.

Raised in Chicago Heights, Illinois, Allen joined the Navy immediately after high school in 1988 — a time when homosexuality was grounds for a swift discharge. He came from a Navy family, his grandfather having served in WWII. He followed in this tradition and enlisted even as he began to wrestle with questions about his sexual identity.

The weight, however, of serving while living under a cloak of secrecy eventually burdened Allen. He’d received and reported homophobic harassment under the suspicion of being gay. In a moment of self-destruction, or perhaps a declaration of truth, Allen made the prank announcement over secure lines “2-Q-T-2-B-S-T-R-8” and officially disclosed his sexuality.

What Allen didn’t foresee was the escalation of verbal and physical abuse he would endure from his peers.

While stationed in Sasebo, Japan, the harassment climaxed with a horrific hate crime. On Oct. 27, 1992, Allen was viciously beaten to death by two of his own shipmates. His body was so mangled and unrecognizable, a closed casket funeral was recommended.

Allen’s mother, Dorothy Hajdys, was never given complete details surrounding his death by the men in dress blues who arrived on her doorstep. Instead, they only conveyed that Allen was involved in an altercation that resulted in his death.

Persistent journalism by the Stars and Stripes eventually broke the complete story. LGBT rights organizations immediately flocked to Dorothy to offer support. Allen’s mother now knew definitively that her son was gay, and had paid for that with his life. Six months later, Dorothy marched in Washington for gay rights.

I decided to tell my mom the truth many times but always found myself unable to drive my thoughts into words. I now felt I had good reason to let her know.

In 2005, I was ramping up for a deployment to Iraq. As dramatic as it sounds, I didn’t want to die without my Mom knowing who I am. I also didn’t want to lie on my deathbed with regrets.

My confession met my Mom in silence before she awkwardly ended the call.

For months, I didn’t hear from her other than emailed Bible passages. I grieved the death of our relationship. I prepared for the worst, expected it even, and couldn’t imagine how bad it could possibly be. There’s no way to prepare for losing your mother.

I eventually did deploy in fall 2005, but to Pakistan instead. We lived in GP tents that housed over a dozen of us, heated only by a single stove, a warmth that barely moved beyond the first few cots. It was a particularly harsh environment made only tolerable by the limited communication we shared with those outside of it. I had none.

Watching others receive care packages from their husbands and wives amplified my isolation. Like Allen, I felt the burden of having to conceal my sexuality. At this point, I’d known two other sailors get discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The policy and my own paranoia made dating an impossible reality. I’d lost the most important relationship in my life, felt a crushing loneliness, and couldn’t tell a soul.

When we finally returned to Okinawa, another few months of silence flew by before I received an email from Mom with a cold request: “call me.” My heart shattered. While she had all but cut off communication, it was still unofficial. With this call, I was afraid she’d finally discovered the strength within herself to make my disownment formal.

Still, I was too desperate to hear her voice not to call.

“Hey, Mom. It’s me.”

She could not respond coherently through her wails of emotion. Eventually, she calmed enough to apologize clippedly through her sobs for the way she had treated me and pleaded for forgiveness.

Through my own tears, I accepted her apology without hesitation. I had my Mom back.

Weeks passed after our reunion before I finally asked what changed her heart.

“Allen Schindler.”

At the time, I didn’t know Allen’s story. She went on to explain she learned about Allen from a Lifetime Network movie called “Any Mother’s Son.” The film laid out his story, the details of his gruesome death at the hands of his peers, and his mother’s journey towards truth and acceptance.

The parallels between Allen and myself resonated deeply with her. We were both in the Navy. Both stationed in Okinawa. Both gay. Allen also died within a week of my birthday. Allen and Dorothy’s story was the catalyst for our reconciliation.

She shared her fears with me and I shared mine. She was curious about when I knew about my sexual identity. She asked me what kind of guys I was attracted to, and hilariously prodded about my sex life. We shared laughs and grew closer with every conversation.

My Mom passed away six years later after a brain tumor progressed into metastatic cancer. I’ve now mourned the loss of my mother twice in one lifetime.

I’m comforted by the fact my Mom knew who I was and offered unconditional love to me. I am happy knowing that her last few years were spent loving me completely. I will always be appreciative to Allen and Dorothy. Their story gave me back my Mom and returned my Mom to her son. Though cut short, I will be forever grateful for the window in time I experienced her love for my authentic self.

Shon Washington (Courtesy)
Shon Washington (Courtesy)

Shon Washington enlisted in the Navy during senior year of high school. He served as a green side hospital corpsman from 2004 to 2011. When he isn’t posting memes on LinkedIn, he works as a program manager at Shift, a VC-backed startup that upskills veterans, and creates inroads into tech careers.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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