“What 17-year-old boy doesn’t want to spend his summer shooting machine guns and rocket launchers?” Private First Class Joe Lazzerini says excitedly. When I laugh he adds, “Hey, I’m gay but I’m still a boy. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘It shouldn’t matter if you’re straight, only if you can shoot straight.'”
Exactly a year ago, I met Joe in a Seattle’s Best coffee shop in Downtown Crossing in Boston. When he buys an iced coffee, the woman behind the counter asks if he also wants to donate to the troops. “I am the troops,” he says, smiling. But that statement would not be true for much longer.
At the time, neither of us knew that the U.S. government would eventually repeal its controversial ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, an emotional fire bomb for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community serving in the military. The policy, implemented in 1993, mandates the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members.
It’s one of the most direct discriminatory laws on the books in this country, banning homosexuals from serving in the army, and echos, and reinforces, one of the more hurtful sentiments toward queer individuals: You are less than. You are not good enough. We don’t want you.
Joe grew up in Attleboro, Massachusetts as one of three boys. He is 19 years old but looks a little younger. He’s 5’4” but built well with nearly buzzed hair. Joe is extremely easy to talk to. When he laughs at something I’ve said, he reaches out across the table and touches my hand to emphasize it. He lives on his own in an apartment in Dedham, about a half hour outside the city. He moved there right after high school.
When it became apparent that Joe’s parents’ finances were not going to be able to cover college tuition, he decided to enlist in the Army. His great grandfather, a man he admired, joined the military after immigrating from Italy and Joe took pride in following in his foot steps. At that point, Joe had a girlfriend but had fooled around with guys and wasn’t entirely sure of his sexual orientation (which even now, he says, teeters on “bisexual leaning towards men”).
“I’d never said to myself, ‘I’m gay,'” he says.
His decision to join the military was also motivated by political ambitions. Joe’s interest in politics began when he was twelve years old. Because of a constantly wandering attention span, to focus he would read the newspaper every morning. One morning, he read about the City Council race in his town and strongly agreed with candidate Bill Bowles over his opponent. Struck by a need to convince others, Joe emailed Bowles asking if he could help on his campaign; Bowles said ‘yes’ and Joe began flooding his friends, family and others with Bowles materials. His senior year of high school, Joe ran for city council himself and lost by “just 142 votes.”
A year before that, Joe went to the local recruiting office and enlisted in a split ops program in which he would do basic training during the summer and then job training the next summer, while remaining in high school. His mother was concerned about his enlisting during wartime, but eventually she and his father signed their consent. At 17, Joe was officially in the military.
However, he didn’t know the full extent of the army’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, he says, until he was reading over the paperwork on Jan. 9, 2009, his first official day on the job.
“I was confused and I thought, ‘Well, that’s wrong. It shouldn’t matter,'” he says. “But I was really focused on myself and moving forward.”
However, in the time between basic training and his first day of monthly drills in February, Joe broke up with his girlfriend of one year (“I knew it wasn’t right,” he says) and started going to gay bars in Providence. Like many young queer people at that age, he was slowly getting more comfortable defining himself as not entirely straight.
Things got clearer for him once he got to basic training, and his fellow soldiers immediately assumed that Joe was gay.
“They’d say to me, ‘Lazzerini, you’re gay. It’s okay to tell us if you’re gay. We don’t care. It’s America,'” he says, explaining that they weren’t making fun, but being sincere. (“I went to basic training with sixty awesome guys from all different backgrounds,” he says.) Joe says in his experience, the army is more socially liberal that it was 40 or 50 years ago, something he attributes to the younger generation, who when it comes to being gay, doesn’t care anymore.
“The army is not a partisan organization,” he explains. “Its job is to defend the United States of America. It’s an organization that fights and protects the freedoms of this country. It’s not a political party.”
Plus, he says he was too busy with work and training to even think about “getting laid.” Then, two weeks in, his sergeant and master sergeant were talking about Valentine’s Day and Joe commented that he felt the holiday was created by Hallmark to make money. His master sergeant laughed and replied, ‘Lazzerini, you must be gay because if you had a wife or a girlfriend, you’d never be able to say Valentine’s Day isn’t important.’ His sergeant jumped into the conversation reminding him not to answer because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Joe remained silent but the whole exchange started to gnaw at him.
“I felt a lack of integrity. The seven army values are loyalty, honor, duty, respect, selfless service, integrity and personal courage,” Joe says, listing them off with ease. “If I didn’t respond honestly then I was lying about who I am. The military is about honoring integrity and I wasn’t following the personal values I was being trained in.”
To ease his distress, Joe reached out to the Servicemember’s Legal Defense Network, a national organization that helps those affected by DADT. Shortly thereafter, on March 1, Joe decided to come out to his first sergeant.
“I sent an email,” he says. “I was a coward.”
Joe felt better and his sergeant only said he was “surprised by [his] candor,” but Joe’d set a ball rolling toward his discharge. About 14,000 soldiers have been discharged from the army under DADT legislation since 1994 but the SLDN estimates there are currently approximately 65,000 LGBT service members.
Since last March, Joe has undergone a 15-6 investigation, which can be used when a soldier is, as Joe put it, “accused of being gay.”
Joe readily admits he’s not shy about his sexual orientation on Facebook and other social networking sites. He was also active in protests against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in places like Maine and Washington DC. He just got out of an 8-month relationship in August, but his then-boyfriend came with him to DC and they took pictures kissing in front of the White House.
During the investigation, the army scoured Joe’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as, he suspects, his emails, gathering “evidence” of his homosexuality. (Joe says even the fairly innocent “holding hands with a guy” can be used against him.)
“Think about it, if you’re away at training and you’re seeing someone, you wouldn’t even be able to say ‘I love you’ in your emails,” he says. “I mean they say the military doesn’t read your e-mails but they do, anything on a military computer, they can read.”
“Well, how do they know you’re not just saying ‘I love you’ to a friend?” I ask.
Joe shoots me a look, “There’s a difference between how you talk to a friend and how you talk to someone you’re seeing, especially when you’re away for a long time.”
By July 2010, the army had notified Joe of separation proceedings, meaning they were considering discharging him. At the time of this interview, a year ago, Joe remained in the reserves under constant threat of being kicked out. However, he still reported for his monthly drills and was even up for a place in a Leadership Training workshop, a reward he found “confusing” considering he was under investigation for being gay. About nine months later, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would be repealed, and those booted for “homosexual admission” would be allowed to re-enlist if they so chose.
But last year, Joe tells me he didn’t see much hope on the horizon.
“[When I’m discharged], I’ll feel like I wasted the last two years of my life,” he sighs. “It’ll be disappointing but I wouldn’t regret my decision to join or my decision to come out.”