Fox, a 33-year-old gay man who left the Army in 2004 as a staff sergeant, has joined a national movement to reignite the debate about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Starting this month, he'll be part of a seven-week "Call to Duty" college speaking tour backed by gay-rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and Log Cabin Republicans.
The story Fox will tell begins when he enlisted in 1991 as a teenager from rural Michigan, just hoping he wasn't gay. He slowly came out during his 13-year military career—which included a six-month stint in Somalia—while an Army policy subjected gays, lesbians and bisexuals to dismissal for revealing their sexuality. WW spoke with Fox between classes at Portland State University, where he's studying to be a middle- and high-school teacher.
WW: What were you thinking when you enlisted at age 18?
Fred Fox: I knew I was gay, but I didn't want to be. Where I grew up, gay was Charles Nelson Reilly and the people you saw on TV like Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. And that wasn't me. So although I know I had emotional, sexual attractions to men, it didn't fit.
So did you enlist to prove your masculinity?
Yeah. It was about "look at me, I'm a man."
The Clinton administration announced its "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 1993. How'd you deal with it?
I'd be right there going, "Yeah! That's bullshit. Who wants gays in the Army?" It's a survival thing. It's sad. There was this part of me that's like, "I think I can change. If I just deny it, it doesn't exist. And if I gay-bash, then cool, even better." I'd been in a full year when Clinton came into office and I got excited that he's gonna change this. Then the policy went into effect, and I just dropped it all.
Is this tour some way of making up for that silence?
Yes. For so long I have not been able to talk about my life. Now I'm giving speeches about my life.
How'd you reconcile staying in once you knew you were gay?
I didn't. I was gay. I knew who I was and I had no shame about who I was. That's when I made the decision that this is not any way to live.
Did accepting you were gay change how you felt about the military?
Kind of. What I had to deal with right away was the homophobia. Like suddenly those jokes aren't funny anymore. You get stuck with this issue of "I want to say something, but if I say something that draws attention to me." I'm the guy without the girlfriend, you know?
Was homophobia a daily thing?
Oh God, yeah. You've got this porn version of the Army. If that's really what it was like, I would still be in it. There's this level of homoeroticism, and the only way to deal with it was through homophobia. Because we live in a society where the cliché is you can watch a man shoot a man on TV, but two men kissing is offensive. Because we live in that world and you're in these infantry units where literally your life is in the hands of the man next to you. You develop this love and bond that you would like to hug this person and tell them that you love them, but you can't because that's gay. So instead you hit them, you knock them over, you wrestle with them.
What about the stories that there's all this fucking going on?
I never saw it. God, I wish.
What are the chances of "don't ask, don't tell" getting repealed with George Bush in the White House?
Really good. This is an election year, and this is something that people could jump onto. It's a totally indefensible law, and it's a national-security issue. Arabic and Farsi linguists are getting discharged over this. There aren't a lot of them in the Army, and we're in Arabic- and Farsi-speaking territory. It's a financial issue because you take money to train these soldiers, especially the linguists because they're in school for years, and then you discharge them. Enough is enough. This discrimination is hurting our country.
When did you start coming to terms with being gay?
After I left Fort Drum [New York], I came out here to Fort Lewis. And you're 30 minutes from Seattle. So I went to a couple of gay bars. I was up here in '94-'97, so four years into the Army. There was a level of shame and dirtiness involved in it. I could only sneak off, this dirty sleazy sneaking off to go to a bar and have sex with a man and not have any sort of relationship, any sort of connection because that was just too risky. I didn't have to sneak off to have a one-night stand with a woman. In fact, I could brag about it.
By then, you'd given four years of your life to the military—risked your life in Somalia—for an institution and a country telling you that who you are isn't OK. Weren't you angry?
Yeah. It was terribly frustrating. Especially then. Because I was still having difficulty accepting it myself. So to belong to an organization that's telling me what you're doing is wrong, who you are is wrong, didn't help matters. It was just throwing fuel to the fire.
How did you finally come out?
In college [Fox was in ROTC at Northern Michigan in 1999], I fell in love with a straight guy. He's one of my very best friends to this day. That started doing it, where suddenly I was like, wait a minute, there's love involved. This isn't about sneaking off to some club and having sex. There's an emotion to this, there's more than what I've been told this is. This is real. This feels good. So those years in college really started changing my opinions, and it really took three years of going through it to really accept it and say, "Yes, I'm gay."
What did you think about Black Hawk Down (the film about a disastrous 1993 U.S. raid in Mogadishu, Somalia)?
They did a really good job of conveying a lot of the confusion and whatnot, but it was a hell of a lot scarier. People are like, "Oh, now I understand," and I'm like, "No." We went on the rescue operation—well, we were alerted at lunch, at noon, and finally rolled into it at about 3 pm, and we didn't set foot inside a safe perimeter again until the next morning at 8. So what you saw for two hours dragged on for over 12. The movie was fine. It told a good story and it told a part of the story, and it's a great film. I have a hard time watching it.
After your eight years in the army, you went into the ROTC. Why sign up again, after your experience in Somalia?
There's this thing where I have this indebtedness. I lived and I survived through this, and because of that I owe it to my soldiers, I owe it to everyone who comes behind me to teach them what I know. I've survived through battle, I've looked the dragon in the eyes, and I can give you something that someone who hasn't done that can't. This is why I'm alive: to help other people stay alive and to make sure no soldier of mine goes home in a body bag. So yeah, especially because of what I did in Somalia I wanted to go back.
You were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Do you think being gay and having committed yourself to an institution that was reinforcing your own personal repression had anything to do with your diagnosis?
Huh. That's interesting. I hadn't made that connection. I want to say no because after the big firefight [in Somalia], something broke. We were all very quiet for days afterwards. It wasn't uncommon to see your brother crying and just put your arm around him and not say anything. Just to sit here and to understand what was going on. And I don't think gay or straight would have made a difference. I was supported by my Army family.
Do you think you would have been if you were out?
Yes, I do. Because of the bond that's built. It's a dangerous comparison to make, but you get people who come into the Army who are in the Klan. And they work side by side and for a black person, a Hispanic person. Is there a barrier? Yes. Does that prevent them from operating and working and being a team? No. Not at all. So I could've come in as a gay man and if anything it would have made it closer because there was this level of I can't talk about myself. I'm used to keeping things in. I became a great listener. I think it would have been better if I had been out.
For more information about Call to Duty, go to www.calltodutytour.org. The tour has no Portland date scheduled at this time.
Among the military awards Fox won are the Combat Infantry Badge and the Valorous Unit Award. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2003 and got a medical discharge for a back injury in 2004.