I am a Black, gay, Jewish, disabled Air Force veteran. There are many facets to me and I am proud of who I am. When I walk down the street, people see I’m Black; when I speak, people may suspect I’m gay; I wear my Star of David everywhere I go, but many don’t know I’m also a vet. When I was in the military, I had two strikes against me: I was Black and gay. I tried not to let on that I was gay, but being Black is something you cannot run from.
When in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas I was nervous about what I would have to do, physically and mentally, to pass as straight. It was already stressful, but I pushed through the first week with flying colors. I felt more and more comfortable with the gentlemen I would call my brothers for the next six weeks of training. There were Black, white, Latino, Hispanic, and Asian men, and I saw them all as my brothers. They were good men, I thought.
One morning after physical training, I went to the bathroom and popped a squat. I had to go, but at times I would go to the toilets just to be alone with my thoughts. I often would think about my family and friends back home. I heard the door of the stall next to me open and I sat quietly. The person in the stall next to me said, “Hey who is next to me?” I said, “It’s Smith (my last name at the time).”
I recognized a distinct Southern twang but could not put a name or face to the voice. After minutes went by, he said to me, “Wow, you stink nigger!” I could not believe my ears. Not two weeks in the military, and I am experiencing racism. I was so angry, I yelled, “What?!? Who is this?” The man did not say anything. But he hurried out of his stall and ran out of the bathroom. There were no witnesses and I could not move while I sat on the commode. I sat there and I cried, my trust broken, and could not even tell anyone because I had no idea who said it. It hurt all the same.
Later, while stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, I was happy for the most part. I was ok at my job, had really great friends and hung out with a group of LGBTQ+ people. But there was always a certain time of the year I would become agitated and uneasy. During the summer there would be side work I’d have to complete. Each squadron of the base would have a time slot where they would have to provide security to nearby Dover Downs Racetrack. I am not really a fan of NASCAR, but as this was a military duty, I had no choice but to do this; it was an order by my commanding officer.
As I was working security I continued to stand at ease while watching people going in and out of the racetrack. I spotted a little girl and when she turned her body to me, I saw that she had a Confederate Flag on her shirt saying, “The South Will Rise Again.” For those who do not know what that means, think about what would happen to the United States if that were ever to happen.
The little girl’s mother grabbed her as if she was protecting the child from me and her husband gave me a stern look as if to say, “Stay away from my family.” I thought to myself, I’m protecting you, I’m protecting this country so you can be a racist and teach your daughter to be racist. I cried later that day because I felt so powerless. As a military member I cannot say anything and I have to protect people who hate me. I felt fear, I felt hurt, I felt wronged.
NASCAR has now banned the Confederate flag and I am so happy about it. To me, that flag is just as polarizing as a “Make America Great Again” hat. As I weep while writing this last line, I want to say a special thank you to Bubba Wallace, the only full-time African-American NASCAR driver. Wallace publicly praised NASCAR’s decision to ban the flag and even painted “Black Lives Matter” on his racing car. Bubba, you did what I wanted to do, but could not.
Dr. Justin B Terry-Smith is a disabled Air Force veteran, writer, and HIV activist. He is the author of the HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret. Find out more about his work at justinterrysmith.com.