Tour of duty: as an openly gay marine, Jeff Key fought in Iraq only to be kicked out due to his sexuality. He says coming out is the best decision he ever made
Badrah, Iraq, May 20, 2003 I stand atop my vehicle with my weapon at the ready, balancing friendly with guarded. We want the people to know we are here to help, but looking passive is an invitation to trouble. A man in his early 20s passes on the opposite side of the street. He is fit and good-looking in that brooding Middle Eastern sort of way.
I follow him with my eyes. So I’m watching my Iraqi soccer player walk down the street and he looks back–in that way. There’s no way we can do anything, but I’m desperate for a verbal acknowledgment of what we both know. He figures out how.
“You have wife?” he asks.
“No, no wife,” I say. “You?”
“No wife,” he answers.
Then those beautiful brown eyes lit up. I just smile. We’re making out big-time with our words. “You’re beautiful,” he says quietly.
We stand there, enjoying the torture of our situation. “You have …?” And he pantomimes the action for lip balm. I dig in my pocket and produce my dirty, half-used tube. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think anyone’s ever put on lip balm in a sexier way. “What you call …? And he kisses the air, making a kissing noise. “Yes, kiss. We call it kiss,” I reply. “Kiss,” he repeats and hands back the ChapStick. “No, you keep it,” I say, putting my hand up to refuse it. “Kiss,” he repeats and pushes it into my palm.
Well, I’ll be damned, he’s giving me a kiss. I smooth the stuff over my own lips as he watches, and in an instant my anger at both our cultures’ ignorance is diminished and shame is overcome by bliss and absolute pride–in us, in our love, to show love no matter what. We are everywhere.
That’s just a portion of the journal kept by openly gay lance corporal Jeff Key, a U.S. marine who served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. His written recollection has become the basis for a powerful one-man show, The Eyes of Babylon. In the show–running at the Tamarind Theatre in Los Angeles–Key veers from humor to tears to outrage in the blink of an eye.
At 6 foot 5, with his high and tight haircut and 220 muscular pounds, the 39-year-old is every inch a marine. His usual cockeyed grin betrays the fact that he’s being honorably discharged for coming out to his commanding officer.
Key says he felt he had no choice. Two months into his Iraq tour he was injured lifting heavy equipment and was flown back to the United States. He became more and more angry at how the war was being mismanaged and how “don’t ask, don’t tell” was continuing to harm the estimated 64,000 gay men and lesbians currently serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Some have even questioned Key about playing the “gay card” in order to get out of the military. He responds that he had crawled back into the closet after nearly 20 years of living openly only to find himself fighting a war he believes to be illegal. He says he decided to use the ban on gays in the military to avoid being asked to take innocent lives for corporate gain.
“Banning gays in the military is archaic and stupid,” Key says. “Marines are designed to take orders. If they are ordered to keep their mouths shut and not harass the person who speaks truthfully about who they are, they will follow that order. That’s what marines do. If they are told to walk into a hail of gunfire, that’s what marines do, follow orders.”
As the fighting in Iraq continues, Australia as well as all 25 member nations of the European Union allow gays and lesbians to serve with honor in their military units. There are countless examples of units from European countries with openly gay soldiers and U.S. forces serving together, says Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There was even one case where the commanding officer of an integrated unit was openly gay,” Belkin says.
Key remains disdainful of the current administration, and he makes no bones about it, either onstage or off. “I became a maline to protect the Constitution and to protect innocent people–and thousands and thousands of people are being slaughtered for an economic and political agenda,” he says with sadness in his eyes.
A native of America Junction, Ala., Key realized that he was different from other little boys at a very young age but didn’t put a label on his feelings until he was a teenager. It took a little longer for him to share the fact that he’s gay with his mother and, especially, his father, who is a deacon of the Church of Christ. “The news was rough at first, but both have come to terms with my sexuality,” he says.
After he came out at age 23, he continued to drink his way through his 20s. “I embarked on 13 years of undergraduate education and hard drinking at the University of Alabama, where I eventually sobered up and got a degree in theater, but not necessarily in that order,” he says. He headed west to Los Angeles. At age 34 he signed on to become a U.S. marine.
His March 2004 coming-out letter is also included in the script of Key’s play and says in part, “I will not insult the civil rights workers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s by saying that I understand what they went through. I am white and easily pass for straight, so I have never been ushered to the back of the bus. I do, however, know what it feels like to return from a war to a home where I am told that I am not good enough to enjoy the same rights as those other Americans I supposedly went to war to defend.”
One night five marines from his battalion had driven to Los Angeles from Camp Pendleton, about 80 miles to the south, to see his show. They waited for him backstage. “All the crap we went through to put this show together was worth it for that moment when those marines grabbed me and hugged me and said, ‘Good job.’ It was awesome,” Key says. He pauses and takes a sip of coffee. “I didn’t cry in front of them, but I tell you, when I got back in the theater, it tore me up pretty good.”
Clinton is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
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