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Gay Arkansas GIs talk end of DADT 

Scars linger from "Witch Hunt" era.

click to enlarge STILL A SOLDIER: Robert Loyd, at his home in Conway.
  • STILL A SOLDIER: Robert Loyd, at his home in Conway.

Even though the U.S. military's institutional persecution of gay soldiers was consigned to the history books on Sept. 20 with the formal end of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, it's still hard to find gay former soldiers in Arkansas willing to talk about their experiences. The scars from the particular brand of fear experienced during what one called "The Witch Hunt Era" tend to linger.

Conway's Robert Loyd, co-founder of the gay and lesbian advocacy group Conway Pride, has been protesting for equality in the military since the mid-1990s. Raised in Damascus — a Vietnam vet who served as an infantryman during some of the bloodiest years of that war — Loyd said his upbringing meant that he didn't even know the definition of "gay" when he volunteered for the Army as a 19-year-old in 1967.

Though he didn't know he was gay then, Loyd said that looking back at photographs of himself from the year and a half he spent in Vietnam makes it clear to him now. "I'm looking at them and it's like, why didn't somebody in my life look at me and say, 'Are you gay?'" he said. "Even from old photos, I can look at me now and say: I could have been a really good queen if queens had existed back then. But I had no concept."

Others around him apparently realized it before he did. Loyd said his first homosexual contact was being sexually assaulted by his platoon leader while in Vietnam, an experience which left him broken and confused. After leaving the war zone, he spent his final year in the Army in Germany. While he knew by then that being gay was a criminal offense in the military, he found Europe to be welcoming for homosexuals. When he was kissed by a "pretty blond German boy" one night, something in his head clicked, and he realized he was gay.

"There really is no prejudice. It's not unusual to see men or women holding hands or hugging in almost all of Europe, so I had no concept that it was a wrong thing when I got my first boyfriend," he said. "I did understand by then that you could be drummed out of the service and locked up ... but my opinion was, if that's what you want in life, who is somebody else to tell you you shouldn't do that? It didn't make any sense to me."

Loyd said that the ban on gays in the military has always stuck him as a "stupid, stupid thing," especially given that the majority of gay people he knows are at their most enthusiastic and courageous when supporting their friends. That's key when the life of the soldier next to you might depend on how far you'd go to protect them. "No one is more dedicated and loyal and kindhearted than gay people, and [I say that] not just because I am one," he said. "I know it sounds a little self-serving. But if you've been kicked on and shit on your whole life, you learn to be strong, you learn to be tough, and you learn to be a kind person."

While Robert Loyd's story of a young vet discovering his sexuality after surviving war has the ring of a coming-of-age novel to it, the stories told by former Army Col. Kaye McKinzie sound more like something written by Kafka.

Now an assistant professor in the College of Business at UCA, McKinzie is a West Point graduate who spent 23 years in the Army before retiring two years ago. For McKinzie, life as a closeted lesbian officer was a daily struggle with fear, with the threat of prison hanging over her head the whole time. In the days before DADT, the Army routinely carried out what she and a network of closeted friends called "Witch Hunts" on the most meager evidence of homosexuality, with the investigation tearing apart lives and pulling in anyone even remotely connected to the person at the eye of the storm. McKinzie said that so much as saying you didn't have a personal problem with someone being gay could bring an investigation down on your head.

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