A Gay – Southern – Military - Ivy League - Man

I could barely make out the top step. Looking up at the staircase to board the plane, I felt scared, excited, liberated and worried. I was leaving my hometown, along with everything else that had been familiar to me for the past 18 years. After my parents’ divorce, I had become head of my household and had no idea what the future held. In addition to my new familial role, I was also a closeted homosexual.

I grew up in a Christian, working-class family.  My father, a high school dropout, was the sole-income provider for our family. While he was away at work, my mother tended to the house. My childhood was paycheck to paycheck, and my parents were often behind on the bills. We had the necessities, but nothing more. Looking back, I honestly don’t know how my parents made ends meet, but I appreciate their sacrifices to give my siblings and I a shot at a great future. They put us through private school during elementary and middle school, which helped us broaden our intellectual and social scopes. I went to school with mostly upper-middle class students where I felt out of place, not only because of my socio-economic status, but also because of my attraction to other guys. Furthermore, I was not good at sports and would often get bullied and called a "faggot" during my physical education classes. I dreaded going to school.

I turned to the church; it was my only safe haven. But even that wasn’t deemed safe. Even though everyone was supporting and loving, the church taught us that homosexuality is wrong, but I knew I could not change. I felt as if God was punishing me. Once again, I was out of place because I had to continue to hide my sexuality. For the first 18 years of my life I failed to have a sense of belonging, due to the negative social stigmas around being a gay man in the south.  On the outside, I seemed composed, but internally I was battling a turbulent storm with no clear path of escape.

Perhaps as an escape, I joined the military. This was a major step for my life and the responsibilities I would be faced with, but I didn’t know where the climb would lead or how to navigate my role as an adult, let alone as a service member.

Nearly a decade later, everything has changed. After completing initial training, I reported for duty aboard the nuclear attack submarine, USS Santa Fe. I was petrified, venturing into the unknown, trying to take it one step at a time. I immediately began the rigorous qualification process, learning every mechanical and electrical system onboard to become a logistics specialist. My shipmates relied on me while they slept; if an emergency occurred in the middle of the night, I was responsible for keeping everyone safe. There was no room for error. I had to push my personal troubles aside and be an adult.

Considering personal troubles, I found there are no secrets on a submarine. When the crew learned that I am gay, they continued to support me, even during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. We were brothers. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was my true self, empowered with a sense of confidence that I had never experienced. It was a major step forward.

Today, as I prepare to graduate from Cornell University, I look back on what I have accomplished. I proudly served my country in some of the most difficult and war-fraught regions of the world.  I will soon become the first member in my family to graduate from college, but not just any college - an Ivy League University that is. Later this year I will be working at one of the most iconic hotels in the world.

As an 18-year-old kid trying to play man of the house, I would have told you that the world is full of limitations, but today I know that anything is possible. If I hadn’t taken that first step, I would have never reached the top of the plane’s staircase that began this journey. As my venture continues, I want to inspire others who might feel trapped.  No matter your sexual orientation, background, or socioeconomic status, we all have potential for success. Regardless of your background, you too can accomplish great things. Yes, my sexuality suppressed me for the first 18 years of my life, but now I embrace it and use it as a platform to empower people just like you. Stay strong, believe in yourself, and stay true to who you are.

David Outlaw

Cornell University CO' 17