Caught in the middle of a military battle that lasted nearly 70 years, Richard Caswell, 26, saw his career in the Navy come to an abrupt end the day after he came out to his chaplain. It was the first time he said “I’m gay” to anyone.
The ban on gays and lesbians in the United States military started in 1942. Looking to reduce the psychological trauma many servicemen faced in World War I, military brass decided it was the “effeminate” gay soldier who would most likely crack under the pressure of the Second World War. It was a ban that would rely on the worst stereotypes of gay and lesbian soldiers, and over its long history it would create countless victims and a handful of heroes who helped shape the early LGBT movement.
Growing up in Weehawken, New Jersey, Richard was a third-generation Navy recruit. His grandfather and father knew firsthand the difficulties of military life. With his father’s advice to “blend in and not stick out” and joining the Navy at the relatively advanced age of 24, Richard thought he knew what to expect. “I wasn’t 18 and fresh out of school. I was a little older and went into the Navy with the mind-set to find myself—to get away from everything I’d known.”
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But from almost his first day, Richard says the Navy was a “big shock.” That wasn’t always easy for a good-looking guy from the big city. “I was the one they made an example of in front of the whole division,” he says. “I was from New York, and I stood out from guys who were from all over the place. They called me ‘Hollywood.’ I got that name on the first day.”
Being singled out and hiding the secret that could have him thrown out of the service—one that he had never revealed to anyone—led Richard to stay isolated and on his own. “I’m an extremely social person,” he says. “So I don’t really know what was happening. I would push certain things out of my head and try not to deal with them. But it was a lonely time for me.”
While Richard was waiting to be shipped out for his first deployment, his thoughts finally caught up with him. “I was supposed to go to the Middle East, to Bahrain for a 13-month deployment,” he says. “But they messed up the tickets, so I was staying in a holding barracks for a week. Do you know what you do in holding barracks with nothing to do for a week? You think.”
Richard could no longer ignore the fact that just three months before enlisting in the Navy, he’d had his first experience with a man. “I knew I was gay growing up,” he says. “But I didn’t know what gay really meant. My family didn’t have gay friends. It wasn’t spoken of. I guess it makes sense—my father is from Sicily and my mother is from Naples. They’re both very traditional.”
Read more about Richard in the December / January Issue of Instinct—out now!