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Serving In Silence, Before 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Denny Meyer spoke about serving in the Navy as a gay man at StoryCorps in New York City.
Denny Meyer spoke about serving in the Navy as a gay man at StoryCorps in New York City.

This weekend, gay pride celebrations will mark the first year since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the law that banned gays from serving openly in the U.S. military.

Denny Meyer, 65, is a veteran who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. During a recent visit to StoryCorps, he remembered what it was like to be both gay and a sailor in the late 1960s.

"In those days, we served in silence. And not one day passed when you didn't worry that you were going to be found out," he says.

Meyer served in the Navy from 1968 to 1972. He was in the Army Reserve from 1972 to 1978.

"When men are at sea, they horse around. And so, they'd wrestle on the floor with 30 guys shouting. But when anybody wanted to do that with me, I would grab their neck and bounce their head against the bulkheads — 'I don't go for that,' you know.

"So, unintentionally, I got a reputation as the straightest guy around," Meyer says with a laugh. "You know, 'Meyer won't do that even for a joke.' "

Still, Meyer had to be on his guard, especially during what he calls "a witch hunt for homosexuals," which he says was a regular occurrence.

"The officers called me in. And they said, 'Meyer, you're the only one we can be sure of,' " Meyer laughs. " 'Will you help us find these people?' And I said, 'I don't know nothing about that.' So you lead a lonely life, you know? You're an island, all by yourself."

After that incident, another episode put a scare into Meyer. He was at fleet headquarters and was given a surprise summons by two men in suits.

This photo of Denny Meyer in uniform was taken in 1968, in Chicago.
/ Denny Meyer
Denny Meyer
This photo of Denny Meyer in uniform was taken in 1968, in Chicago.

"And they said, 'Meyer, we're doing a routine investigation for your clearance," he recalls, "and in the course of that investigation, we found out that you are a ...' — and between that word and the next, I died. I went, now the hell begins.

"Then the guy finished the sentence, and said, '... are a user of marijuana' — and I wanted to jump up and down and laugh. It was just so terrifying, that 40 years later, I remember that moment like it was yesterday."

Meyer now serves as a vice president for American Veterans for Equal Rights, a nonprofit "association of active, reserve and veteran service members dedicated to full and equal rights and equitable treatment for all present and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces," according to its website.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo and Katie Simon.

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