What does being gay mean to you?
I like men. It's just an embedded part of how I was born, who I am, and it's just me. Yeah, there's a deeper meaning because it's part of me, just like if my eyes are brown, which they are. And my hair is brown, which it is. It's just part of the same trait, it's something I can't control [and] something I wouldn't want to control. It's an embedded part in my heart, my soul, my mind, everything about me. It's just a very special part of me, and it's something that I know a lot of people still struggle with today. I just embraced it. It was just at one point, I just decided after I was out of the military, I just embraced it 100%. That was in 2007. I always knew [that I was gay], I mean, of course I was active—I guess that's a good way to put it. Active in engaging in activities, but I was also very discreet about it during my time in the service for obvious reasons.
what do you want people to know about your experience as a gay man in the military?
[I was in the] Air Force, I was Security Forces for about 5 years. 2004 to 2007. Went to Iraq twice, fun place, understatement. Actually, I was a certified heavy gunner. Everything I picked up, I was certified on pretty quickly. Was an expert marksman on the M4. Everybody talks about being bullied, and it's something I can honestly say I experienced for every single day the entire time I was in the military. Every single day. And it was primarily because of my sexuality. I told a few people I thought I could trust, and they told people I was hoping they wouldn't tell.
One time, I remember when I was overseas in Iraq, it was my second deployment, and I got into an argument with somebody over... I can't even remember what the argument was about, but all I know is that he pinned me down, spit in my face, and called me a “fucking faggot”. You have to be tough, you have to be the tough guy, or tough girl. You have to be strong and be deep witted and all that just ridiculous stuff that I look back on, which made me a better person. I'm not glad I went through it, but I will say it did change me in significant ways to understand just how to really take a stand for yourself. It was unfortunate I had to go through it that way in order to figure that out, but it really did teach me how to take a stand for yourself, and what the meaning of taking a stand for other people could be.
[I want people to know that] not everything that happens to us in life, not everything that we may be feeling or some disability that we may have is clearly visible. I think that people need to understand that. Some of us really do struggle still today, daily, with a lot of things people can't visibly see. People need to be cognizant of that at times, and be respectful to others that not everything is going to be just plainly obvious. Disabilities come in so many forms and fashions, that we should not make judgments at somebody... We shouldn't make judgments against each other to begin with, but we should be especially careful in the judgments we make against people that we don't even know that well.
Again, treating people the way you want to be treated, you might want to start practicing what you preach if you're going to say that. Because some people really are struggling inside to the point where we don't even see it, we don't even know what it is. Honestly, I am one of those people at times. I am not perfect, I do have things I deal with, but I still try to get out there, show people compassion, help out, join the community, try to engage people and make a positive impact. Not everybody is able to do that because they don't have the right support structure. That's what we need to work on as a community.
how do gender stereotypes affect the way people are treated in the military?
I have some friends that are still in the military today, and masculinity in the military was a lot different between 2004 and 2007 than what it is today. The military evolves based on what the generals tell them. That's just the reality. They tell you gay people are being accepted, you're going to accept it. And there's really nothing that you could do about it. As far as gender bias, I see that more with women in combat, and I don't understand why. There's no reason why we should have ever had a ban on that. If a woman wants to go into combat, there's nothing that we should do to stop her. She's more than capable, just as much as a man is, to fight alongside. I would absolutely embrace it if I was fighting alongside a woman in combat, absolutely 100%. That's bravery beyond any description. Anybody that wants to do that, it doesn't matter what your gender is, it doesn't matter if you're transgender. That's the ultimate willingness to really take a step.
That's what it should be about, but it's become overly politicized, especially with the transgender community. It disgusts me. It really disgusts me. Somebody's willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and you want to sit there and tell them they can't because of who they are? Where are we going as a country if that's the kind of reception you're sending out to the younger generation?
why do you think gay people get bullied so much in the military?
Because they're not able to be themselves. They're miserable inside, they hate themselves. They might even be gay themselves. What caused them to react? Because in the military, it almost seemed like people needed something to hate, something to be against, someone to be against, in my opinion, to keep whatever's going on in their lives out of the spotlight, so let's pick on this person. Bullying, it's all about control. I wish I had a good answer for you, which is part of me. And trust me, none of them were my type. I prefer the marines.
where do you think gender discrimination in the military comes from?
It comes from the Christian right. Point blank. The Christian right is the primary reason that this is happening. They do not like it, they think it's some kind of a mental disorder, which it's not. It is just somebody was born different than what they are, and we should respect that. Embrace it, appreciate it, and support each other. There's so many things, so many complicated things that go on on a daily basis in people's lives, yet certain organizations want to focus on “how can I stop gay marriage?” “How can I stop a woman's right to choose?” How can I get involved in all these things, but they're not even worrying about their own households or what kind of damage it's doing to society and upcoming generation today. There's no recognition of that, there's only, "Oh, this is the way it should be because the Bible says so." That's not what the Bible, in my view, interprets as. [It’s says] to love everybody, respect everybody, appreciate everybody, embrace everybody, to give to the poor, help the poor out, support each other. Not demonize each other over somebody's need for public assistance. Let's demonize the current rich corporations that are hitting record stock buybacks. 1.1 trillion dollars in stock buybacks since the tax cut, and you want to complain about somebody who needs to put food on the table. We need to rethink our priorities as a society, and Christianity, what my understanding of the meaning of it is, it's to support each other, to love each other, to allow each other to make their own decisions.
how was the topic of gender or sexuality discussed in the environment you grew up in?
Sexual identity, let me start with that one, because my parents didn't tell me that my cousins were lesbians, both of them. I found out on my own. I was 15 years old, and I found out because I walked into my cousin Jamie's room and I saw a bunch of rainbows everywhere. Then my mother was like, "Yeah, there's something wrong with her. There's something wrong with her." I'm like, "What do you mean, there's something wrong with her?" "Yeah, she needs help." That went on for a few years. I didn't communicate with my parents much and I still don't today, but that went on for a while. When I got out of the military, it was more okay, whatever. It was more whatever. But growing up I didn't even understand sexuality. I just knew the gender I wanted to have sex with. I didn't understand anything else around it.
Then as far as gender specific, I don't know. It's weird because I had to change my own mindset on what the traditional household meant because in my mind, it was an expectation that my mother would stay home and cook, and my father would go to work. I quickly realized, this is wrong. Why does it got to be that way? When I was in the military and especially when I got out of the military, I really took a dramatic shift from that, even thinking that, and said, "You know what? That's wrong. I'm taking a stand against it. There's nothing anywhere that says why can't the husband be home and the wife can go work full-time and the husband can take care of the kids. What's wrong with that?" And that actually happens quite frequently, and that's great. That is wonderful. But trying to break down those gender barriers, those traditional gender barriers, that thought process that women are supposed to stay home and have kids and cook, no. That's not the way it should be. That's insane.
what has been your highest point in your journey so far?
2007. When I got out of the military, that's... I moved to Miami because I wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles as I possibly could. I thought, let me go to Miami where all the cute Latino guys are. I got there, I arrived, and I was like, "I am done hiding." I just took a stand, I moved in with a gay roommate, and just realized, "This is going to be my life. I'm going to live a good life. I'm just going to be myself." It was April of 2007 that I made that decision. I felt empowered, and I have not turned back since. I stopped caring what other people thought of me and I started worrying about what I thought of myself. I didn't care enough about myself to even really be able to embrace my identity, and so once I started realizing I need to care about myself first and not give two shits what other people think, it was a dramatic shift in my ability to progress forward and really embrace who I was.
what has been the lowest point in your journey?
Substance abuse. That was closely tied to my time right after I got out of the military. I had about two, three years of pretty big struggles with substance abuse, and I'll leave it at substance abuse for a good reason, but I'll let people infer what that looks like. Ivan, my partner, he was the one that helped me get off of these substances. He stuck by me, he stuck by me. He kept encouraging me, he kept saying, "Ryan, you need to... Come on, man, come on. You can do this. You're better than this, you're better." After a couple years, I did AA, I went and held hands, Kumbaya. AA is great, I highly recommend it to anybody that's reading this and needs help. It's a wonderful program, I had great sponsors. It was just a compilation of those things that made me realize I just don't want to feel like that anymore. I just don't want to be that person anymore. I just want to do something greater with my life. Started up a little bit before [I got out of the military] and then continued a little bit after, unfortunately.
I had the support structure that helped me get out of it. You can't do it alone. I will tell everybody right now, you cannot do it alone. You will not get off of something like that, it doesn't even matter if it's a minor addiction. You cannot do it alone. You have to have support. You have to make sure that you're willing to stop first, you have to make that decision. Then you have to find the right people to surround yourself with to help you stay off of whatever it is. It's hard, I'm not going to lie, it's hard. It is a struggle. You will go through so much emotionally, mentally, spiritually. You will feel so many different things from that experience, and I hope you never have to go through it. But if you do, it will change your life.
There's lots of opioid addiction, that's a big one. Don't be afraid to ask for help. People need to stop stigmatizing people that ask for help, too. It's tough, it really is a tough, difficult thing. You have to be willing to reach out to others, but people cannot stigmatize them for reaching out. You have to find a support group. I mean, it's an anonymous thing. Anonymity is a big thing in the recovery community. You find an anonymous group, you go reach out for their support. Just go to a couple... Go to a meeting, go to one meeting to start. Trust me, you're going to be back to about 50 or 60 more after that.
How do you think the acceptance of yourself back to 2007 impacted the lives of other people around you?
It impacted my ability to learn what love meant, and it impacted my partner's ability... Well, it impacted my partner in a pretty profound way because I fell in love with him. He was the first person to show me what that really was. If I wasn't able to be myself, identify as myself, I wouldn't have even known what that was. He obtained the biggest impact from it because he loved me back, and still does to this day, and we still live together since 2007. Ain't that some shit. He has seen me at my lowest points, and he is with me at my highest points right now, so that is... How did it impact him? Pretty significantly, because he's still with me.
how do you feel about the current societal conversation around gender and sexuality?
It's very misguided. It's very misguided. We should not be having a conversation about how we should restrict it. We should be having conversations about how we open it up more and have a broader discussion about it, to understand each other from an emotional, spiritual, and education standpoint. Maybe we should start with the education, the other parts can come later. Just to understand what that actually means. It is so much more complex than that. The conversation needs to be focused on, especially now, it needs to be focused on teaching people what it actually means. Giving that foundation of education, which the current generation up and coming, I believe, is starting to get that. They really are starting to grasp onto sexuality is just part of who you are. I mean, how many gender identities do we have now, 79? Which is great. We should all just understand that sexuality is complicated. We should stop defining it, and we should just be who we are without all these requirements for being put into a category. Because you know what we're doing? We're just feeding fuel to a fire that is going to continue to judge us for being so complicated.
How do you see that conversation changing just in the next couple of years in phoenix?
Phoenix has come a long way, but there's still a long way to go. Phoenix needs, it's a very transient city, a lot of people from a lot of different places come here and live here, and once they realize how affordable it is and they stay here. In the next couple of years, I think that gender identity and sexuality are going to become front and center, two of the biggest issues that we are probably ever going to see in our lifetimes. You know why? Because these kids that grew up with all this hate spewing towards President Obama and now with President Trump, they are becoming voting age, and they're saying, "Uh-uh, no. Enough of this, I'm going to go out and vote you out. It's enough of this. We've had it, we don't want people getting treated like that." There's a lot of rebellion against churches right now. The conversation is becoming more popular. From a social standpoint, from a social issues standpoint, it is going to become a defining moment in this country, because you tie that into the things that are going on with racism, they all intertwine with each other in a very sick way.
We need to pass a constitutional amendment that protects that. It's sad that we even have to do that because we can't get people to just treat each other with respect, but we need something comprehensive that really ingrains it into the Constitution to protect it. Just to be able to be who you are, we have to put a constitutional amendment in. Let that sink in. And that's that. But I think that the conversation is going to continue becoming more intense, which is good, because the more we are talking about it, the more people can actually take a moment to learn more about it. But I think that we really need to focus on appreciation, acceptance, understanding, and less on aloof conspiracy theories.
how do you see the future of Arizona and the community?
I think what we need to start focusing on the most as a community is we need to recognize that everybody has a unique experience in life, different needs, and that we should all be participating in the process to help each other. Last I checked, we're not getting a whole heck of a lot of help outside of the community, so we have got to start helping each other out some more. As a community, we should be acting as an organization, that when somebody is down, we try to help them. I know that we have a lot of non-profits in the state that support LGBTQ, which is great, but people need to do a little bit more to step it up. Go out and volunteer more, take two hours a month and volunteer for something that can help somebody else out. Help another organization out. I see the future of the community becoming here, and it already is starting to, a powerhouse of economic power, period. We do have a lot of economic power, and I want the LGBTQ community to get the foundation they need to open more businesses. I want to see more LGBTQ businesses, and that is the future I see. More of them, more successful businesses, more community-oriented support for each other. Less cattiness, less judgment. We can't keep judging each other if we're being judged by all sides outside of this. How is that helping?
We really have to have this, I guess you could say, we really need a Kumbaya moment. We really need it badly, otherwise we're going to implode as a community, and that starts with just respecting each other, understanding that there is a community need for a lot of people that still need a lot of help. We should be there to support them, encourage them, not discourage and hate them. I see a community that can thrive 10 times more than it is right now, 10 times, 10 to 20 times more than this right now, so long as we recognize that we can, and so long as we put just a little bit of effort into trying. It starts with working together in the community and supporting each other, and discovering what the future is together and helping others get to where some of us have been successful, and encouraging them to do the same.
what advice do you have for someone who is new to their journey?
You need to love yourself. You need to love yourself first. You need to know deep in your heart that this is who you are, really identify that. You need to really make sure that you surround yourself with people that you know will support you, love you unconditionally, and encourage you. Those things are probably the most vital. And don't be afraid to be who you are. Don't ever be afraid to be who you are. Get out there and volunteer and engage with the community. Just be present. If you want to see a different side of the community, just be out there, be active, and be yourself.
We all go through a difficult journey, and trust me, it's not going to be easy for anybody that's just going through it. It doesn't matter who you are, it's a difficult journey. I don't see that changing any time soon, but just embracing yourself, embracing the good people around you, and really being honest with yourself and others, that in itself could probably be the biggest and most remarkable thing to change your life.
*The views and opinions expressed by those interviewed by The Spectrum do not necessarily state or reflect those of The Spectrum, do not imply political endorsement and are explicitly published for educational and storytelling purposes.