When he was active military, you couldn’t ask Sean Johnson if he was gay – and he wouldn’t tell you. A big piece of his identity was concealed with a Coast Guard uniform after he made up his mind to enlist when the World Trade Center crumbled on Sept. 11, 2001.
Johnson had military in his blood, even though his personal profile didn’t fit the now-outdated picture of a military man. Both his grandfathers served in World War II. An uncle served in Vietnam. His dad was a Merchant Marine. He was drawn to the uniform, the sense of duty. He loved the order of the military and knowing where he stood on everything.
Well, almost everything.
Like some gay men, Johnson tried to force himself to fit into the life he was trying to lead. He married a woman and had children, though every relationship with a female ended badly for him.
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Joining the Coast Guard saved him, even though he had to hide who he was. He had been that kid without a purpose after graduating from high school in his native Lake County. He drifted on a road so aimless, he was putting all his energy into being a faceless graveyard-shift server at a national chain of greasy spoon restaurants.
“I was in such a bad place,” Johnson says today.
A regular customer of his, a Coast Guard reservist, had been nudging him to join, but Johnson held back – until that fateful morning when America came under attack by terrorists and Johnson felt the call to serve.
“I went to the recruitment office in Eureka that day. There was a line,” Johnson said. “All federal offices were closed, but the recruiter showed up and asked us to come back.”
By Nov. 21, Johnson was in basic training. His number was never called to fight America’s enemies, but he wore a Coast Guard uniform for nine years and served on a ship that did drug interdiction and once seized 2 tons of cocaine.
Johnson left the service to go college on the G.I. Bill. After his military training, he found success and intellectual rewards in his classes at Sacramento State. But all the pieces of his life still didn’t fit.
“I was going to leave school, get my affairs in order, tell my blue-collar family that I was gay,” he said.
Thankfully, Johnson was talked out of that plan by Jeff Weston, director of the Veterans Success Center at Sacramento State. “A lot of veteran students who leave don’t come back to school,” Johnson said.
It turned out that when Johnson told fellow students and friends at the Veterans Success Center his “secret,” they reacted in a way Johnson never expected. They didn’t react. They didn’t treat him any differently. He found that he belonged fully at a place that accepted him. He found he could pursue his degree and his passion for the military, while no longer having to hide who he was.
The pieces finally fit. The boy became the man, and he found the courage to finally tell his family he was gay. “When I told my dad, he said, ‘I love you no matter what. I’m proud of you no matter what.’ ”
Meanwhile, college life had opened Johnson’s eyes to historic figures, such as Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay-rights advocate who was serving as a San Francisco supervisor when he was murdered in 1978. “Harvey Milk said we have to tell our families that we’re gay. The more we hide it, the more of a taboo it is.”
So now, Johnson always tells his story within the veterans community – even when older veterans don’t know how to handle it. “I was on a panel with this Veterans of Foreign Wars guy who was older and he didn’t know what to say to me. He was backing up as I was talking to him,” Johnson said. “But it’s up to our generation to tell our stories.”
Now 33, Johnson is looking to graduate from Sacramento State with a degree in public relations in May. He hopes to go into politics and move with his partner of two years to Southern California, so he can live near his children. Johnson now works at the Veterans Success Center at Sacramento State, helping vets navigate the bureaucracy of the G.I. Bill. He organizes veterans events on campus.
Johnson is there to help all veterans, but especially those from the LGBT community who are now coming into the open since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally repealed by the federal government. New generations of soldiers and sailors won’t have to hide as Johnson did. Meanwhile, he can live his life through the peace of reconciliation between his military background and his sexual orientation.
“The military shaped me,” he said. “It definitely changed me from a kid with no direction and without much hope into a motivated individual.”
On Monday, Johnson will march in Sacramento’s Veterans Day parade with other LGBT veterans from the Sacramento Valley. It will be a proud day.