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Carrier: An Interview with Quartermaster Brian Downey

Brian_downey

On Friday, I posted an interview with Jeff Dupre, a producer on the PBS special documentary mini-series Carrier. Carrier is a character-driven total immersion in the high-stakes world of a nuclear air craft carrier. A team of 17 filmmakers spent 6 months on the USS Nimitz on a full deployment to the Persian Gulf. The 10-hour documentary began airing last night and continues on through Thursday on PBS from 9-11pm ET (check local listings).

One of the hours tonight is called "Super Secrets" and details some of the more hush-hush goings-on aboard the Nimitz, including several interviews with gay and lesbian servicemembers. While those who are currently serving are pixellated in their interviews, one soldier you'll be able to see quite clearly is Brian Downey, who served as a quartermaster third class petty officer in the navigation department of the Nimitz.

Downey served four years in the Navy and is currently living in San Diego, working at a bar, and enrolling in school to be a medical assistant. Downey grew up on a Navajo reservation in the four corners area where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado come together.

I had the opportunity to ask Downey a few questions about his service and life aboard the Nimitz.

Did you anticipate any particular challenges coming aboard the Nimitz as a gay man?

I never saw anything as a real challenge. We all have our little jokes about our backgrounds just like anybody does. Nothing was ever really an issue. It was never really a struggle or anything. You kind of have to get along. You're gonna work with each other, you're gonna see each other.

Why did you decide to enlist in the Navy?

I wanted to enlist for one, to serve my country. I knew I would have to put a lot of things aside. I understood that I had to make a sacrifice and I feel like more of an enriched person because of it. I wanted to get out there, I wanted to learn what people were like. Everybody wants to see the world, you know, but I feel like being in this country and to have the freedoms that we have...I wanted to feel like I worked at least for what I have, or at least understood the reasons why I have it. Why do we do what we do? What's the price for freedom? It wasnt anything else. In all honesty I think it would be a great thing for a lot of people to do. I'm not an advocate of [telling people] 'hey you should be in the military,' or for the draft, or anything like that. [But the military] helps you understand more who we are as a people. That's the reason I did it.

What were your duties aboard the ship and did you know what you wanted to do before you enlisted?

The first day when I sat down and took a test, all these jobs came up. One thing that really caught my attention was 'aviation anti-submarine warfare systems operator (AW)'.'What they do are search and rescue missions. There's also an acoustic version of the job using radar. I just knew I wanted to get into search and rescue. It was very dynamic job. I ended up being part of one of the smallest departments on the ship but we had the huge responsibility of [ensuring the] overall safe navigation of the ship, making sure it goes where it needs to go and gets there safely. We're the primary assistants in the pilot house. That was my overall responsibility. I was also the logistics supplier for my department. For a brief time I was involved with charts but that's a huge responsibility that takes up all of your time.

Would you do it again?

I was in all four years. Did my duty. In all honesty it wouldn't bother me to go back if I ever got called back to serve as part of a war. But right now I'm enjoying my civilian life.

One of your other jobs, as we see in Carrier, was the raising and lowering of the flag?

Every day it comes down at sunset and goes up at sunrise. While we're in ports you put it up and there's a ceremony for it. And you treat it with respect while you're doing it. In ports, you're seen more often. It doesn't matter where you are, you treat it with respect. It was one part of my duties.

How was it serving under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

Interview continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

Lone_sailor

How was it serving under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

It wasn't really much of an issue for anybody. I can't speak for everybody, but for me it wasn't an issue. At the time I didn't have a problem with it. Before, when I said I had to make sacrifices, [I meant that] quite honestly there were far more things bigger than myself. I'm [not] there to make a statement, I'm there to do my job.

Did anybody who found out about your sexuality give you a hard time?

Nobody really. It's not like I said 'hey this, hey that, blah blah blah.' It's not like I advertised it. I wasn't a big queen running down the passageways and stuff. There were people that knew. And if they knew, they knew. If they didnt they didnt, big deal.

NimitzDid you feel like there was homophobia aboard the ship and how did you deal with it?

You always feel like you want to change somebody's mind. You can't do that for somebody but you can definitely help turn their mind in a different direction. You always want to help somebody try to understand better. In a lot of people's minds I'm gonna walk around with a limp wrist, and have a switch in my walk, and I'm gonna lisp up and down all day, you know?

I had a friend on the ship - he was an awesome guy, masculine as they come - we used to be workout buddies. He'd always spot me, I'd always spot him. I never thought of anything really and when he found out he was like 'dude we work out together' and [I said to him] 'I'm not gonna invade your privacy and your space and on top of that you're not my type anyway, so why would I?' And he's like, 'Why not? I don't think I'm a bad looking guy.' I said, 'No you're not. You're a good looking guy but I'm just not gonna go there.' And it really made him understand a little more that people out there who are gay [can be] very mellow and kick back, and just normal.

People would joke with me because they noticed I took care of myself in a way that most of the guys didn't. I made sure I was clean shaven. I made sure my hair was regulation but still stylish (laughs) but not too much. I got along with a lot of guys there. One guy would call me 'Princess' every now and then because I spent more time getting ready. I was always ironing my uniform. You could always wear your coveralls as long as they were clean and pressed. I was always in my utilities, I always kind of presented myself very well, and he was like, 'Why do you always wear that?' And I said, 'Because I take pride in what I'm doing.' Once he found out (I was gay) he was just kind of like 'Oh my god, I'm so sorry, I hope you werent offended.' He was always ragging on me for being who I was.

There were people that I'm sure felt uneasy but it's not like I bothered them or wanted to be close buddies or anything. There were a lot of guys I knew who had mixed feelings about it. When I first came in somebody wanted to fight me because they thought I was a certain some way or another and then one night he came back on the ship drunk off his ass one night and I kind of put him in his place about it.

How do you feel about the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in general?

Iin this day and age and the way things are changing, if they drop it I don't see that it would be a big deal for anybody. People know each other on the ship. And that's just in the little community itself. If they were to drop the policy I'm sure it wouldn't cause much of a security risk for anybody. It's always been around — there have always been people in the military that have served that are gay. And people that have been in great positions — people that are in very high positions — and if it were dropped I'm sure it wouldn't be a big deal. We're not here to freak you out, we're here to try to do something with you - we need to do our job and do it well. We just happen to be a little different — just like blacks were different, just like women were different. Well before those times there were gays in the military. I think it would be a very big social uplifting, an awakening for people.

The 10-hour documentary series continues tonight through Thursday on PBS from 9-11pm ET (check local listings).

PreviouslyCarrier: Jeff Dupre Talks About Life Aboard the USS Nimitz [tr]

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Comments

  1. great interview and great program last night.

    very touching.

    Posted by: tofer david | Apr 28, 2008 12:19:50 PM


  2. I found Brian's interview quite interesting as i too served in the Navy as a Medic during vietnam (1969 - 1975). If anything what surprised me the most about the Navy at that time was the number of "relatively openly gay sailors" on board the ship i was stationed too. I met one of the sexiest and cutest guys on my 2nd day on board, and he and I had the most amazing sex life during the year i was on that ship!! But the truly amazing thing was how open guys were about their sexuality, for me it was somewhat intimidatiing as i was still closeted about my being gay!! I know how can you be closeted and still carry on a relationship with another gay man.... It was really easy for us, we found places to meet and when ever we were in a port of call one of us simply went into the city got a hotel room and there we would spend a nite or two together - once in fact in Italy a chamber maid found us naked and engaged in anal sex because she knocked and walked in at the same time without waiting for us to let her in!! I am certain she will never do that again!! Anyway being gay in the navy in the 70's was never an issue for anyone,,,,, DADT still amazes me to this day now 33 years after my last year and it's harder today to be openly gay then it was in the 70's! go figure

    Posted by: Alex | Apr 28, 2008 12:38:17 PM


  3. I found Brian's interview quite interesting as i too served in the Navy as a Medic during vietnam (1969 - 1975). If anything what surprised me the most about the Navy at that time was the number of "relatively openly gay sailors" on board the ship i was stationed too. I met one of the sexiest and cutest guys on my 2nd day on board, and he and I had the most amazing sex life during the year i was on that ship!! But the truly amazing thing was how open guys were about their sexuality, for me it was somewhat intimidatiing as i was still closeted about my being gay!! I know how can you be closeted and still carry on a relationship with another gay man.... It was really easy for us, we found places to meet and when ever we were in a port of call one of us simply went into the city got a hotel room and there we would spend a nite or two together - once in fact in Italy a chamber maid found us naked and engaged in anal sex because she knocked and walked in at the same time without waiting for us to let her in!! I am certain she will never do that again!! Anyway being gay in the navy in the 70's was never an issue for anyone,,,,, DADT still amazes me to this day now 33 years after my last year and it's harder today to be openly gay then it was in the 70's! go figure

    Posted by: Alex | Apr 28, 2008 12:39:55 PM


  4. Now there is a role model for us all. Humility, honor, dignity, determination. I salute you, Brian Downey.

    Posted by: dc8stretch | Apr 28, 2008 12:44:46 PM


  5. Happy for your own experiences, Alex, but, as with any individual's subjective, anecdotal experiences, with all due respect, there is no empirical evidence to support your broad brush assertion that “being gay in the navy in the 70's was never an issue for anyone,” nor that “it’s harder today to be ‘openly gay’.” If YOU were still in the Navy, you could compare the periods. But Quartermaster Downey's more recent experience, while hardly describing the Nimitiz as a variation on one of PlanetOut's RSVP cruises, disputes your opinion.

    Since the military ban on gays as a “class” began during WWII, according to research by Allan Berube, author of “Coming Out Under Fire,” and the “The Oxford Companion to American Military History,” the number of discharges has gone up and down each year and within each military branch in clear relation to the military’s varying need for bodies and the attitudes of individual commanders.

    By your logic, the fact that the Navy [which has always lead the services in discharges] only discharged 483 during 1950 versus over 1600 a year, 1963-65, that it was more accepting of homosexuality then? Of course, not. The reason was the “stop loss” need of the Korean War. Those 1600+ each of those years was 400 more than the highest number discharged in one year under the DADTDP version of the policy.

    “Of 1,648 enlisted personnel ousted in 1985 for homosexuality, over 600 were denied honorable discharges. In addition, prison sentences for same sex sodomy were common until the late 1980s. In 1942, during World War II, the commander at Moffett Field, California, canceled the dishonorable discharges of seven gay men so they could be reassigned after their prison sentences.” It’s unlikely that it was because he was “pro gay,” though commanders who “looked the other way” with some individuals in some circumstances have been reported even during WWII.

    “Between 1941 and 1996, the military discharged about 100,000 gays and lesbians, an average of roughly 2,000 per year; the 1996 discharge figure was 850.”

    That was the second year of DADTDP, and, after a peak in 2001 of 1273 discharges, the numbers have significantly decreased. Do the smaller numbers mean the Pentagon brass asshats love gays more? Of course, not. Since 1957, at least four reports commissioned by the Department of Defense have demonstrated that allowing out gays to serve would not harm the military, and those with the most lettuce on their chests have ignored them.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Apr 28, 2008 2:18:19 PM


  6. Alex cites his personal experience, as does Brian Downey. Michael Bedwell/Leland Francis cites abstract statistics. Not a difficult decision upon whom I would rely.

    Thanks again Andy for letting us know about this program. But for your sharing on this blog of your broad ranging interests, I would have more than likely skipped it.

    Last night reminded me anew why I am so proud of and have so much respect for these courageous young men and women. I am privileged to have them as members of my extended family and as students in my classes.

    Posted by: rudy | Apr 28, 2008 3:03:18 PM


  7. My experience was that the Navy could be seriously schizophrenic about gays.

    Posted by: John | Apr 28, 2008 4:36:02 PM


  8. I had the best gay sex when I was in the Navy in the late 70's, early 80's and no one on base cared. They ALL knew. The Master Chief of our command was gay and I had an affair with his driver. I miss those days sometimes :-)

    Posted by: Billy | Apr 28, 2008 7:13:02 PM


  9. I am a gay man, 44, and I just retired from the Army. The homophobia really varied from unit to unit and from installation to installation. Some places the people were more tolerant and other places very intolerant (there are a lot of religious fundamentalists in the military and they try to push their worldview on everyone). I just learned to keep my mouth shut and not socialize a lot with people in my unit after duty hours. It was difficult and lonely at times. And there were a number of gaybashings in the military, including a murder of a gay soldier in 1999. I was "married" to a lesbian in a marriage of convenience which provided cover for both of us. Funny thing, people used to complement me and her on the positive qualities of our marriage, how we always got along, etc. What a joke! I think it is interesting that the Bush administration is permitting convicted violent felons to enlist now, but won't allow openly gay people to enlist -- at least the Bush people really let you know where you stand as a gay person in America (worse than a convicted felon). Anyhow, I served with honor, was decorated for bravery, and now I get a decent pension for my service. I still wouldn't recommend military service to a young gay person.

    Posted by: Mark | Apr 29, 2008 12:10:31 AM


  10. Thanks for a great post. I recorded the episode but haven't had a chance to watch it yet. I was tipped by a friend that it might have something to do with DADT.

    I think several of the posters here have made some good observations and Brian's story illustrates it well. The law says something precise about the status of gays and lesbians in uniform, but the way it is interpreted varies A LOT from unit to unit and commander to commander.

    I was discharged under DADT from the Army in 2003. For the first half of my enlistment, life was great. A few of my friends knew about my sexual orientation, but the commander and other leaders didn't make a big deal about gays. (period.)

    Still in the same unit, we got a new battalion commander and a new battery commander, and several other new leaders in a short period of time. I might as well have gone to a different unit. The new first sergeant created the "hostile environment" and pressured my friends to see if they might say anything "incriminating." Eventually I chose to come out to the commander and was discharged accordingly. But my dignity and integrity were still intact.

    Even today, several of my friends from the Army are still my friends and we talk regularly, visit each other and have taken trips together. Soldiers and sailors are more accepting today, but the politicians in Washington continue to insist we keep Don't ask, Don't tell.

    Posted by: Pepe | Apr 29, 2008 1:50:46 PM


  11. As with anything that stirs up past memories of my enlistment in the military; the show made me a little nostaglic but mostly just sad, angry and (I hate to admit it) but also somewhat bitter. As I was one of those statistics that was cast/thrown out of the military (air force) and it was done in the US militarys reknown witch hunt styles. I am particulary bitter as I was (as many gay men & women are) very good at the job I did and usually had above average to excellent 'marks' and the willingness to be stationed almost anywhere the military was so inclined (you would be surprised at how how many of the 'str8s' were very reluctant to be stationed very far or long from there small hometowns). Mostly though I am/was saddend & angry at the fact that my military career at the point before I got booted was just geting really good and I truly liked the idea of possibly staying in for many years. I often wonder what my life would be like today if I had got to stay in. Also to add insult to injury I surprisingly found out in my return to the civilian world that the state of CA at that time (June 1991) did not allow CA
    State Unemployment Compensation for military veterans discharged for homosexuality. It is my understanding that many states to this day do not allow it. I strongly advise any gay military service members at this time to research the particular state you pay taxes to, to see if they allow UI for that type of discharge. If not, switch to paying taxes to a left leaning state that will allow it! On a brighter note though it has been my experience since then that I would say about 98% of the employers I have worked for never checked any of the fake information I gave about my military discharge or experience. In fact, i even added to an extreme other embellishments to my 'military career' and provided them with a completely self fabricated forged DD-214 document or at least a black & white 'copy' of it. On a more sober note though I often feel completely powerless to persuade other members of the G&L community to only vote for political canidates who support overturning this aniquated DOD policy. And if I am to be completely candid about this; for better or worse it is the only political issue I singularly ever get really passionate about for the last several years. I am at a point though after being more than a decade since I rallied over this issue of giving up caring about it. Like many other social & political ideas in this country compared to Europe and a few other western (and even non-western countries) we SUCK and continue to suck. (note to self: work on being less bitter about the past)

    Posted by: Matt | Apr 30, 2008 1:50:30 AM


  12. "the employers I have worked for never checked any of the fake information I gave about my military discharge or experience. In fact, i even added to an extreme other embellishments to my 'military career' and provided them with a completely self fabricated forged DD-214 document or at least a black & white 'copy' of it."

    Matt, I seriously hope you aren't suggesting that those who are discharged under DADT falsify their discharge paperwork. That would be a grave mistake. I is dishonest and calls into question their integrity. Not to forget, it is also unlawful. Statements like that only provide fuel for those who oppose us.

    Speaking and representing the truth is the best way to go. And think about it: many employers today have nondiscrimination clauses that protect LGBT workers and applicants. When someone submits a DD214 that says they were discharged for being gay, it gives them the opportunity to discuss that discharge with the employer. What a way to make an impact! Activism isn't just about marching and protesting; activism is about educating and sometimes education takes place one person at a time.

    Posted by: Pepe | May 1, 2008 4:13:07 PM


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