When he went off to fight in Iraq, the 39-year-old Los Angeles resident did what any airman might do. He took with him a photo of his beloved, a reminder of who waits for him at home.
But the airman is gay. So the photo he carries with him appears to be of his dog. The pet is in the foreground, and the man's partner of five years, a 41-year-old talent agent named Brian, is in the background, as if Brian were a friend who just wandered into the frame.
The United States armed forces deem open homosexuality a risk to morale, good order, discipline and unit readiness. Gay servicemen and women who reveal their sexual orientation or are found to be homosexual are subject to discharge.
As a result, Brian and other partners of American military personnel are the invisible players on the home front. The media are filled with photos of the worried families of straight soldiers, including their tearful, poignant goodbyes or their joyous reunions. But gay and lesbian partners can't share such scenes. They can't access the support services the military offers spouses. They can't be sure they would be the first to find out if their loved ones were wounded, captured or killed.
"We do our goodbyes at home behind closed doors and then drive to the base or the airport ... and, there, we'll just shake hands like we're brothers or friends," Brian said.
Brian's partner has been mobilized several times since they met, said Brian, who asked to be interviewed in a booth at a Beverly Hills restaurant, where other diners would not overhear. He declined to let his surname be printed, lest it reveal his partner's identity to other airmen. The men keep in touch by e-mail, but they never know who might be reading their exchanges. "We have to keep our e-mails very sterile and cryptic," Brian said.
Brian said he hates pretending that they are just pals, but subterfuge has become second nature for his partner after almost 20 years in the Air Force.
Their caution extends to the greeting heard by anyone who calls their Westside home, a house that Brian lived in for years before he met his partner: "Our answering machine at home has to be in his voice only, no mention of me," Brian said.
Brian tolerates these evasions, which he blames on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "Americans shouldn't have to do this," he said.
A Department of Defense official pointed out that "don't ask, don't tell" is the law and said: "The department continues to work tirelessly to administer that law in a manner that is both fair and consistent. The Department of Defense remains committed to treating all service members with dignity and respect while fairly enforcing the provisions of the law."
In 1982 the Defense Department formalized World War II-era policies against allowing homosexuals to serve.
As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton supported repealing the ban, but early in his first term he softened his stance in the face of opposition from the military, Congress and a substantial portion of the U.S. public. The opposition argued that the presence of homosexual soldiers could offend or make other troops uncomfortable, undermining esprit de corps and possibly compromising security.
In 1994 the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise took effect. Recruits could not be asked their sexual orientation, but evidence of homosexual conduct could be turned over to unit commanders for fact-finding investigations.
In recent years, most European countries have begun allowing out-of-the-closet gays to serve in their militaries. In the Middle East, closeted American gays serve alongside openly gay troops from Britain and Australia.
Among the 19 NATO countries, six do not let openly gay men and women serve: Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Turkey and the United States. Ireland and Israel are among the 24 nations that allow openly gay soldiers.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at UC Santa Barbara, said his group is keeping watch to see whether other nations open their militaries to gays as a result of a 1999 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that led to Britain's lifting of its ban in 2000.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in Washington has counseled and provided legal services to about 3,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans in the military over the last decade.
The defense network advises gay soldiers filling out military life insurance forms to describe the beneficiary partner only as a "friend."
Similarly, the defense network advises gay soldiers to use "friend" on the form that tells the military whom to notify in case the soldier is wounded, taken prisoner, missing in action or killed. Next of kin must be listed on notification forms as well, and blood relatives are more likely to be called than "friends," say the defense network and other advocates for gay soldiers.