Destroyed by rumors
For some members of the LGBT community, rumors alone can end careers, bring on financial hardship and change the course of a life.
Eric, who grew up in Enid, knows from personal experience how easily a career can be taken away for no other reason than sexual orientation. He asked that his real name not be used in this article, out of fear he could be fired from his current job for being openly gay.
Even as a child, Eric hid his being gay out of fear of how his family and friends would react.
“I knew that I liked hanging out with the boys and not the girls, and I knew how I felt toward the boys was not what I saw on the television, and wasn’t what I read in the kids’ magazines or what I saw in public, and I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut about it.”
Eric said he witnessed openly gay people in Enid suffer verbal bullying, and he didn’t feel confident enough to open up about his sexual orientation until he reached high school.
“It wasn’t until I got to high school that I really had a support network of friends, because I was in band and orchestra, so I had a family of 400 people who never asked and didn’t seem to care.”
Eric never officially “came out” in high school, but with the support of his friends he learned to no longer hide his identity.
“I was never really in the closet in high school,” he said. “If anybody had enough guts to ask me, I had enough guts to tell them.”
Eric said some family members “had blinders on” regarding him being gay, and close friends supported him but still wished he were straight.
“When your family is in Enid, Okla., you don’t want your child to be different,” he said. “My best friend in high school wanted me to be straight more than anyone, I think mostly because he didn’t want me to get hurt. He always loved me like a brother, but I think he was always scared to death being gay was going to get me hurt.”
Eric didn’t come out to his family until he had left for college. He unexpectedly came out during a phone conversation with his mother.
“She called me one day and asked me over the telephone, while I was at work, if I was gay.”
He said that conversation was the only time he ever lied about being gay.
“I told her ‘I’m dating men and women and I don’t know what I like,’” Eric said. “She was not pleased.”
He said it took most of a decade before him being gay no longer was an issue with his mom, but they’ve worked through the issues and she now is his best friend.
Eric found no such acceptance in his chosen career field, service in the U.S. Air Force.
His grandfather had served a career in the Air Force and retired as a master sergeant. Eric wanted to follow in his footsteps, even though the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy still was not in effect, and gay service members could be expelled, even punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for their sexual orientation.
He said he wrestled with conflicts between his desire to serve and his opposition to the military’s policies regarding LGBT members.
“Why would you want to stand up and work for an organization that blatantly doesn’t want you? But, I think I decided that if I had survived rural Oklahoma, certainly I could survive the military.”
Still, the possibility of being prosecuted or dishonorably discharged loomed over Eric and other LGBT service members.
“It scared the hell out of me,” he said. “I knew as long as I was in the military I wouldn’t be able to have a partner, I wouldn’t be able to have someone close. But, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I had been a military brat, I knew the military life and it’s what I wanted to do.”
Eric enlisted in the Air Force in time to serve in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He said he enjoyed serving in the military, and planned to make a career of the service. Those plans came to an abrupt end when rumors of his sexual orientation led to an official inquest.
“There was a huge witch hunt going on at the time,” Eric said. “All they had against me was rumors, but back then that’s all they needed to throw you out.”
Eric said he was personally devastated when he was forced out of the military.
“It destroyed me, number one, because I had just lost that dream, and number two, because I was going to have to come back to Enid, Okla. It was a double whammy.”
With no job or means of support, Eric moved home to be close to family.
He later moved to a larger city, but returned to Enid after the recession cost him a second career.
Eric still lives and works in Enid, but he carries some new perspectives from having lived in other communities more accepting of LGBT people.
“That was the greatest experience,” he said, “just getting out of Enid and discovering there are people out there just like me.”
Younger LGBT community members agree Enid is not their ideal place to grow up or to live as an adult, but they share a hope Enid is becoming more accepting of its LGBT residents.