Stephen Benjamin still carries strong traces of his military training. He dresses neatly in a green pullover and jeans, his hair's fashionably short, and he's precisely on time for an interview at the Ansley Mall Starbucks. He sits with perfect posture, sipping occasionally from an iced mocha. His voice is matter-of-fact, yet measured.
"I knew I was gay when I joined the Navy. But I really wasn't out, not even out to myself," he says. "I belonged to an evangelical church, and the church says you can change and be straight. I tried that for years. In my senior year of high school, I had an epiphany and suddenly knew that wasn't going to happen."
Benjamin joined the Navy in 2003, the 10th anniversary of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that allows gays and lesbians to serve so long as they stay in the closet. He knew the country was desperate for Arabic linguists for the war in Iraq, so he applied to become a translator and was sent to the military's prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.
Benjamin, 24, smiles ruefully as he talks about how his military career ended over, of all things, an instant message on a computer screen.
Being stationed just outside San Francisco, and far from his hometown in southern Massachusetts, enabled Benjamin to embrace his sexuality. When he found the courage to make his first public declaration that he was gay, the friend he confessed to simply shrugged and replied, "That's cool." Benjamin hadn't anticipated such a casual reaction. "It was," he says, "a liberating experience."
He studied Arabic eight hours a day for two years, and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. He was assigned to Fort Gordon, outside Augusta, to work in signal intelligence. "That's processing and translating intercepted material," he says. "That's really the extent of what I can say; most of it is pretty highly classified."
Occasionally, the linguists translated communications on planned ambushes and were able to warn U.S. soldiers before they walked into a trap. Benjamin loved his work. He was doing something that mattered.
He was at Fort Gordon almost two years. He liked his co-workers and was so comfortable that he didn't bother hiding his sexuality from fellow translators. It was no big deal.
He soon became friends with two other gay linguists. One, Davie Santos, was Benjamin's roommate until Santos was deployed to Iraq in 2006. For Arabic linguists stationed in Iraq, the classified and secure Internet network operated by the armed forces is a lifeline to home.
Benjamin and Santos chatted daily over the network via an instant messenger. One night, Santos mentioned a guy in his unit. "Is he cute?" Benjamin teased.
It wasn't a sexual conversation, but it also wasn't discreet. Anyone eavesdropping instantly would have known it was a chat between two gay men. But the IMs were private, so Benjamin and Santos never gave it a second thought.
"Then someone finds out, and your career is over," Benjamin says, snapping his fingers for emphasis – "just like that."
It took six months for that moment to arrive. The Navy's inspector general went to Fort Gordon to perform a routine audit to ensure procedures were being properly followed. Investigators picked a random day to check the computer logs. It happened to be the day Benjamin asked Santos whether the guy in his unit was cute.
Benjamin and Santos were among 70 soldiers written up for abusing the chat system. The other offenses were primarily for the use of profanity or explicit sexual language. The offenders were given a slap on the wrist – a month of extra duty. Everyone thought it was over and went back to work.
Five days after the group reprimand, however, Benjamin was called into the base's Judge Advocate General office. He was handed a sheet of paper that informed him he was being administratively separated from the Navy because he'd violated "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He was shocked; he'd thought they were going to leave it alone.
The Navy discharged Santos more than three months later – after his tour in Iraq ended.
For Benjamin, the bitter irony is that the military is desperate for Arabic linguists. And he very much wanted to fill that need. But he's not alone. According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 300 language experts have been kicked out of the military since 1993 for being gay. Figures released by Congress last year identified 58 of those as Arabic linguists.
"They sent me to school for two years to learn Arabic, and that money was wasted," Benjamin says. "The military is full of people who come from different religious backgrounds, different heritages, different cultures. People in foxholes don't worry whether the guy next to them is Catholic. Or gay. They just want to get home alive."