Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cowboys and the Death of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

I grew up in a cowboy culture. My father was an honest to goodness professional roper, and my most cherished possessions as a small boy were my boots, cowboy hat and toy gun belt.

Legend has it that when I was four, I put on my boots and hat, strapped on the six-shooters, and headed outside without any other clothing on my body. Judge Naylor’s wife drove by our house and I drew both pistols and let her have it in a blaze of fake, naked shooting. She called my mother to inform her of this incident, and my career as the Flashing Shootist came to an end.

My life now feels very different than that West Texas world where men have big hats and women have big hair. A few things remain with me, though. From my earliest memories of being around real cowboys I absorbed a certain code they live by.

First, tell the truth even if it gets you in trouble. A dishonest person was the lowest form of humanity. Cowboys were far from saints, but they were admirable in their willingness to be transparent.

Second, take pride in who you are and don’t apologize for it. Cowboys are independents sorts who don’t put much energy into trying to fit other people’s conceptions of who they should be. Wear what you like, say what you think, and drive whichever truck you feel God has ordained for you to drive. Believe me, no true cowboy would drive a truck just because he thought his neighbors would approve.

Finally, honor the institutions that give life substance. Family, church and community service are just a few of those societal bedrocks deserving of respect, if not support.

I certainly don’t want to idealize the cowboy culture, especially considering the virulent homophobia found in much of it. But the code of truth-telling, taking pride in yourself and honoring institutions that give life meaning remains a part of my self-understanding. In fact, I think these are things that help form a good soul and culture regardless of where you are in the world.

That brings me to the timely and well-deserved death of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The revocation of the Pentagon’s policy that forced thousands of gays and lesbians from the military because they didn’t hide well enough was way overdue. We should all celebrate this civil right’s victory. A great injustice has finally been undone.

In reflecting on what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” did to all Americans, not just the LGBTQ community, it struck me just how antithetical this policy was to that cowboy code I described above.

It was a law that not only encouraged, but insisted on lying if gays and lesbians wanted to remain in the military. The policy said if you took pride in being who you are as an LGBTQ American, and lived your life without apology, there was no place for you. And it was a rule that caused many people, military and civilian alike, to have little respect for the institutions that kept such an abhorrent restriction in place.

In other words, our government made it a legal requirement to lie, hide and feel ashamed if a non-heterosexual wanted to serve in the military. That’s the deeper tragedy in this mess. Not only did 14,000 good soldiers lose their careers, but the government institutionalized the very processes that lead to spiritual and emotional death. Lying, hiding and being ashamed are the darkest corner of the closet, and being forced to dwell there will create serious damage to the soul. Any real cowboy could tell you that.

In my counseling practice I see evidence every day of the deep wounds caused by a society that has told my LGBTQ clients they must lie, hide and feel ashamed. I also witness the remarkable healing that comes from those same clients who decide to live as they are and offer no apologies for their beautiful distinctiveness. I pray that the fact the military can no longer enforce “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will encourage other American institutions to reconsider their own shameful history in this regard.

Yes, Church, I’m looking at you. Cowboy up and do the right thing!


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology