45 - Ash Tapia
Navy Veteran - 14 years of service. Loves to help people.
With the infinite possibilities of gender identity and expression, when did you know….
“From an early age, I knew something was different. One of the first times I actually liked someone was when I was 3… it was a girl. My sister, who was older than I was… liked boys, and I’d say, ‘Oh OK…’ But I couldn't really connect with the thought of, ‘Is this the same kind of like that she has for boys, or is this just different because this person is nice?’ It wasn't the same kind like I had for everyone else. ‘That one makes me smile…’ You don't have to be older to understand what makes you smile… it makes you happy if something feels different. I knew from early on that that was something different about me. So, I kept that to myself, because there was nothing in my immediate environment that ever gave me the impression that it was ok to feel the way I do. I knew that certain things that I was feeling were not acceptable to some people in my life… it was an understood thing.”
On her coming out story...
“…my coming out story is a little different because, to better understand why I took so long to come out after knowing my entire life I liked the same sex. You have to understand there was some trauma there. The way I was treated by people whom I thought were my friends and their families was unexpected at times. The things people would say to me when no one else was listening was heartbreaking. I would often be told I couldn’t play with the boys, and that I should go play with dolls instead, or why don’t I act or dress like a real little girl. I was treated differently without out anyone ever questioning why.
It didn’t help that there wasn't a lot of attention paid by my parents. They were oblivious to the reality that something was going on with me that I could not cope with on my own... So when I when I began to have real friendships and relationships, I looked to the wrong people… Some boys would give me attention, and that's where I went with it. My parents thought that I liked boys because of that. But no, the reality was I was having wet dreams of girls…I was hiding that from everyone, because I knew it wasn't OK. Kids were already mean to me because I was different, I heard all the ugly things they would say about homosexuals… some of my classmates would beat up other kids that were what they called funny, different, or queer… They had no problem calling people f*ggot to their face in that part of the South… or some other derogatory terms… I had been called some of theses names. Blending in was the only way to be invisible. I looked forward to the day I no longer had to worry.
During as teenager I would have vivid dreams where I was with women. It felt so right and exciting. All things that people describe it to be with men, but with women. I could not get women off my brain… some of my female classmates would make passes at me when no one was around and I would act clueless. I thought ‘I’ve gotta figure this out’. Experimenting with boys was the only option I had available. I hoped it would stop the dreams, boy, was I mistaken.… I felt so empty from the whole experience… I thought suppressing my homosexuality with religion would work if really put my heart into it… You know like the saying goes, I was gonna ‘pray the gay away’… yeah, cause that works… Said no one ever. In my naïveté, I gave it an honest attempt and found fellowship with other teens, one of them so happened to be very much in the closet… I gave myself the safe space I needed to find that out on my own... what I truly needed and belong.
My freshman year it became really hard because there was this girl that was on my softball team that I really, really liked… it was not the, ‘oh I just want to brush your hair and be your friend’ kind of like, but the ‘I could get lost in your gorgeous eyes’ kind.. For the sake of the story we will call her Winter.
When I met Winter for the first time… She took my breath away… I was in complete awe. My heart was racing, hands clammy, mouth got dry all of a sudden. I told myself, ‘You can't think about her like that… you don't want her to lose respect for you, because then if you’ll come off like you're hitting on her, or if you are interested in her, then it's going to make her feel uncomfortable…’ she’s your friend. Don’t be like strange boys or grown men hit on women without reading the room… that’s being a creep, not a friend. So instead redirected my feelings into writing vague poetry and short stories.
She gave me butterflies and chest pain every time I would see her. So I wrote about it. To make it less obvious I gave copies of the poem to all my friends and even read it to my team. I wanted her to hear it from me, what I didn’t expect is what happened after… I just wanted Winter to hear it. So, I chose to do this on the team bus while traveling to an away game. I remember reading and after looking up at her. Winter smiles and says out loud, ‘She wrote that for me!…’ I’m pretty sure I turned bright red in the face while part of my spirit cringed in fear. Laughing it off and redirecting was my best defense… I said, ‘You’re funny... No, I didn't write it for you...’ I now realize I was only trying to convince myself.
My teammates knew enough to make them uncomfortable playing on the same team with me. The team captain told me as much. Needless to say, they knew and the following season didn’t go so well for me. I remember being confronted by my team captain and being asked if I was a lesbian. I denied it but the damage was done… it made them uncomfortable and they just didn't want me around. I thought my Coach might be on my side, she wasn’t. Meaning I mysteriously lost my starting position due to not earning more than the other girls, even though I had in the beginning of the season. Lesson learned, sort of hiding isn’t hiding. Losing the opportunity to earn scholarships really makes you angry especially the way it was kept from me.. I thought, ‘Well damn, I earned my spot… and now I can’t play because of something that has nothing to do with my physical ability.’ Never again...
I moved back to Louisiana and got a pretend boyfriend. He was my beard. Yeah I know it's wrong… Using someone because my need to avoid conflicts with my teammates and get scholarships was more important. I wanted to get out of Louisiana on the next thing smokin! I got creative and did just that.
I became a sailor in 2003 knowing that they had the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) rule still in place… Essentially this regulation makes it a crime to be openly homosexual, to include telling anyone of your sexuality, nor can they ask about it. A regulation created with the intent to criminalized homosexuality in the military. If found in violation you could be prosecuted... you were treated as if you committed theft, adultery, or rape. You would lose all benefits and be separated from the service. I refused to let that be me. I still wanted to live my life while serving and sacrificing for others. But I was denied the right everyone else had. It drove me bananas.
I called my best friend to talk about it. I remember telling her ‘I have something to tell you… I have been struggling to really tell anyone, but I want to let you to hear it from me that I'm a lesbian… I do not want to have to hide.’ Her first words to me were, ‘I love you, sis, and I don't want anything bad to happen to you… cause sometimes people will try to use that against you… do bad things to you. Promise me you will be careful because there are people who have nothing better to do, and will make your life miserable.’ I felt relieved that I could tell her. Her honesty and love meant the world to me, I was happy to have shared that moment with her.
A few days later. I casually tell four close shipmates as we were celebrating my graduation from ‘A’ school. I thought they were all trustworthy people.... But later on that night I heard one of them telling someone over the phone ‘Guess who’s gay…’ She got the shock of her life when I knocked on her barracks room door. I checked her and she apologized.
My older sister was the very first relative I told. She was understanding and supportive. We talked about how it made me feel and all of the fears I had moving forward. The conversation was lite and heartfelt. Something that I really needed. She knew I wanted to wait to tell my parents because they might not take it as well as she did.
I was not ready to tell my parents right away. At the time, my dad was still overseas. So, I told my step mom because I could trust her… so I thought. I was reluctant to tell my Dad. Being a supportive parent was impossible for him if he did not agree or understand where you were coming from. I wanted to tell my parents around the same time. But I was outed before I could. On my 19th birthday my dad calls me to wish me a Happy Birthday, and then proceeds into a lecture without missing a beat... ‘You know I'm so upset that you didn't tell me that you were a lesbian…Heike told me...’ I was like, ‘Why is this the conversation we're having right now? Why? [My stepmom] promised me she wouldn’t tell anyone...’ But she outed me the first fight they had just to one up him. My truth was her ammunition in an argument that had nothing to do with me, all out of spite. ‘Well you should know better because you've lived under the military umbrella your entire life… You know what happens to people that come out the closet and how it’s against the regulation…
Are you sure you’re a lesbian, have you ever been with men?! If so, has it crossed your mind that you don’t like men because you haven’t had it right?’ I wanted to vomit in my mouth, but I didn’t. He kept talking in lieu of my silence, insisting that ‘It’s not OK to be out while on active duty’ for reasons that had nothing to do with my needs or rights as a human being… Half listening for a few more minutes while my anger subsided it hit me that ‘It’s my 19th birthday and I don't really want to listen to anymore of him speaking.’ I politely ended the conversation and didn’t call my dad for the next 10 months. To this day he still doesn’t understand how inappropriate his comment were.
The last person to tell, was my mom. I was reluctant to tell her… but I was reminded by my friend Lyric to take the opportunity to do so while I still could. ‘If you want to live your truth, live your truth… Figure out what you really want… Because you can't be in the closet, not the way you like women, it’s too much to go back now… Professionally, until the reg is changed we are all stuck in the closet, so that leaves your personal life. What are you going to do if you never get the opportunity after today? Who wants to live a life where they are afraid all the time. Make the choice for you, and if you choose to share with her, do it while you still can…’
So I told my mom… she began sobbing audibly through the phone, her first words were, ‘I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO HAVE GRANDKIDS’... Leaving me flabbergasted. ‘Mami, I just told you I'm a lesbian you’re worried about never having grandkids?!?’ My Mom cried as she went on about how this impacted what people would think about her as a parent or if she had done something wrong. I wanted to laugh in order to keep from crying. The moment was sullied and no longer about me, but instead it was about her parenting skills and need for grandchildren. ‘Mami, did you hear what I just said?... You know you have another child right? ...that has eggs? And they're perfectly fine... You're going to have grandchildren. Just not by me. And even if I wasn't a lesbian, I would never have children.’
My mom's recall of my coming out was completely different, in her head. She felt like she was being supportive… I had to break it down for her recently and explain, ‘You almost cost me my security clearance, which would have cost me my job and everything I had worked hard for’... To help readers better understand: a government security clearance requires interviews with people that know you best to include your family, friends, and bosses... During the D.A.D.T. era if they find out you’re homosexual, your clearance would be revoked… they instead start a new investigation to substantiate the claims of homosexuality. If enough evidence has been presented and confirmed you are dishonorably separated.. During mine, my Mom outed me to my entire family. I explained how her disregarding my need for privacy and discretion was a huge violation of my trust and downright disrespectful to me as a woman. She didn’t know her reckless behavior had added a year to my clearance investigation. I did not mince words, I was candid about how it will NEVER be her place to out anyone, and if she should ever have the inclination to feel so compelled to tell someone else’s truth, to remember it is NOT her truth to tell.
Eventually I got my clearance. I wish that’s where my story would’ve ended with being a being outed in the military… But it didn’t. On one occasion when I was suspected of being a lesbian after turning down a male NCO who propositioned me for sex in order to keep my secret. He didn’t like being rejected. Reprisal quickly followed. He would not stop, he went as far as saying that I would enjoy being intimate with him in front of my boss. They both laughed at his remark. I calmly said he was not my cup of tea. I was transferred after my Senior Chief caught wind of the conversation. She remember her telling me my behavior around the clinic was unprofessional, and how I carried myself was unbecoming of a sailor. I was transferred a week later. The homophobia made for a very toxic work environment. Until they repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I had no way of defending myself in these situations. I became embittered by the mistreatment.
On Sep 20, 2011 When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, one of my sailors came to me and asked if my girlfriend and I were going to be out now… because at that time I wasn’t trying to hide anything anymore. I told him that we were just going to continue living our lives like we had been, and we didn’t feel the need to announce our sexuality because that wasn’t who we were and it had nothing to do with our professional lives. He congratulated me, he said he was happy I finally had the right to be myself. ‘I know it must be a relief to not have worry anymore…’
In my coming out I had support from my friends… my parents, they had to be coached a bit to help them understand. Professionally I served the majority of my military career during the D.A.D.T. era. I am very grateful that the newer service members will not have to ever know what it was like during D.A.D.T.. If you wear the uniform you should not have your civil liberties taken from you out of fear. It’s unjustified and goes against the principles of military service.”
Biggest fears or concern about coming out…
“My number one fear of coming out was being murdered by a homophobe. My life being taken from me out of anger through violence terrified me... That and having my opportunities taken from me. I was alway been a hard worker and having been kept from a seat at the table over something that should never be a factor was something I wanted to avoid but sometimes couldn't.”
Frustrations within the community…
“Well, if I had to pick something, it would be the limitations we set upon ourselves... people are not boxes you can check. More self love would go a long way. Distracting ourselves by pointing out differences takes away from being in the moment with each other. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies…”
Favorite part about the community?
“My favorite part of the community is how we continue to evolve. We have stopped, for the most part, defining ourselves within the limitations set by heteronormativity. It truly has become the real representation of who we are as a people. Everyone has a place, and if they don’t, we lovingly make room to accommodate and support.”
What is something you would tell a younger you? Advice for anyone out there who feels like they can’t come out, or they don’t have a community to be a part of?
“To younger me… I still wouldn’t tell little Ash to come out of the closet. Children were still getting killed… my family is from the Caribbean, they still murder people for being gay… but I would’ve given myself more moral support… tell myself that it’s okay to feel that way. Don’t feel like there’s something wrong with how you feel… because there’s nothing wrong with it. No one taught you to feel this way… it’s something happened on it’s own… naturally… and it’s okay. Just understand that not everyone is going to accept you for who you are… Guard your truth and only share it with those that have respect for you and how you feel.
To others… find a good outlet. For me, it was writing and sports. If you can’t come out and you have to stay in the closet, don’t let it take you to the point that you’re so sad and depressed by it… because it stifles your emotional development. If you focus on what you love about yourself and find out what makes you happy, it will change your life. Let all the other stuff that people project onto you just fall away. It won’t be easy, but the journey is worth it. You have to be clever… If you’re going to live your truth do it at your comfort level, not everyone else’s. And always exercise humility and compassion… it costs you nothing, and it enriches your life…”
What in your life are you most proud of?
“Holding onto my sense of hope… regardless of everything that I’ve seen and experienced in my life. Still having hope that I can change, and get better, and mend… and persevere without letting those challenges become obstacles. An obstacle is not an insurmountable thing… you just have to have the right perspective… determination… and tools…”
With the state of the nation and the world in its current state, what’s one thing you would change if you had the power?
“I think about that a lot, but it always goes back to government and politics… I really don’t know what I would wish to undo, because no problem is singlefold… You could undo one thing, and then what about all this other stuff?! I would say shift political power away from the 1%ers. Restructure our government so that it is more representative of us, so that it can work for the people instead of against them.”