Of the belief that the military would be a way of finding a better life from his small town in Akron, Ohio, Rob Smith enlisted in the military. At 17 and fresh off the bus he survived the notoriously brutal Infantry Basic Training. He served for five years in the Army as an Infantryman and was deployed to both Kuwait and Iraq. In his book “Confessions of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Soldier: How a Black, Gay Man Survived the Infantry, Coming Out, and the War in Iraq”, Smith shares his story.
With some of the comments from the Trump administration earlier this year about trans people being banned from the military, it’s important we share Smith’s book and his story. Although Smith’s story is from some time ago, the struggle for LGBTQ rights is not over. In his book, Smith gives us frank and honest insight into his personal experiences in the military as both a gay man and as an African American man.
In 2010 Smith was arrested at the White House with 12 other LGBT activists in protest of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law which barred lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers from serving openly. Only months later he was a guest of President Barack Obama at the ceremony that repealed the law.
Today Smith is a vocal advocate for veterans’ issues and LGBT rights and empowerment. He speaks at college campuses, pride events, and corporate functions across the U.S. He has been featured on HLN’s The Daily Share, HuffPost Live, Dr. Drew On Call, and CNN. He is also a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) award for Excellence In Blogging and the 2016 Gay City News LGBT Impact Award for multimedia coverage of issues impacting the LGBT community.
We had the opportunity to connect with him to explore the book and his work as an advocate for veterans’ issues and LGBTQ rights.
What was the pivotal moment when you decided to become an outspoken activist and LGBTQ advocate?
There was no big ‘aha’ moment, but I noticed this community forming of LGBTQ soldiers and veterans who were speaking out about serving under DADT, and I thought ‘well maybe I have something to say too.” It’s not that there’s a choice to become outspoken or an advocate, but a fundamental realization that this kind of discrimination is wrong, and honestly I didn’t always have that realization. There was a period after the military where I thought that my service was somehow ‘less than’ because I’m gay, and speaking out in this way was my way of finally realizing that it wasn’t.
What is the main message you’d like people to take away from reading “Confessions of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Soldier: How a Black, Gay Man Survived the Infantry, Coming Out, and the War in Iraq”?
Fundamentally, it’s a story about being an underdog and coming through whole on the other side. You don’t have to be black, gay, or LGBTQ to identify with some of the themes I take on in the book. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from, of all people, hetero white women, ESPECIALLY mothers of LGBTQ kids. I want people to say ‘If Rob can get through THAT, I can get through whatever it is I’m dealing with.’
What have you learned about yourself through writing the book and through sharing your experiences with others?
Well, there’s no more masturbatory a writing exercise than a memoir, so I didn’t learn all that much about myself that I didn’t already know, BUT I was able to explore those experiences through the lens of a now-30-something year old man. What I have learned via touring with the book, doing college lectures and readings, and discussing the work, is that even in 2017 LGBTQ people of color are still dying for representation in writing and media. What I’ve also learned is that young LGBTQ youth are still struggling, even in the age of Drag Race and what seems like an explosion of positive images of our community. That glitz and glamour is still very far removed from the reality of most youth today.
What is the most important thing that people DON’T understand about being Black and gay in the military, that they need to know?
That someone who is both black and gay can still be a patriot, can still love America, and can still be proud of military service. Patriotism and dark skin are not mutually exclusive. The relationship is definitely more complicated for sure, but I’m still proud of my service.
Mental health is a major concern for soldiers and veterans. Where did you find support while you were struggling with your identity in the military? Where do you find support today?
I didn’t find any of that support while I was in the military, which is only one of the reasons why DADT was so awful, but today I’m lucky enough to receive therapy via an organization called The Soldier’s Project, which links any military veteran to free therapy and mental health services via a network of mental health professionals who volunteer their time. It has been a wonderful experience and I’m so thankful to the people behind it. I wish that more people knew about it and that more veterans used it.
You mentioned in an interview with Talks at Google, that sometimes people don’t always understand being a veteran or military service. How best can non-military people support veterans and soldiers? And what about how to support LGBTQ soldiers, is there a difference in the support needed?
The best way civilians can support veterans or service members is to make an attempt to understand we exist. I think the biggest step towards that is realizing that veterans aren’t just ‘wounded warriors’ or people to be pitied, but men and women with the skills to lead – and leadership skills are hard to find in this day and age.
We like to close with our signature question. What would you consider to be the edgiest, unconventional, unique, or tight-lipped thing you’ve ever done and how did it impact your life?
The edgiest thing I’ve done in my life is to live it authentically and unapologetically as an out, black gay man in a world that I feel would sometimes rather have people like me shrink and disappear. The most unconventional thing I’ve done is to tell my story without regard to respectability politics or sanitizing the details of my sexuality for a hetero crowd. Doing both of these things has impacted my life by giving it a fullness that I think is well-earned.