Family Portrait: David Christopher Keener

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, nearly 13,000 servicemembers have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — the military’s ban on openly gay members — since 1993, and strong evidence suggests that countless others have made the choice not to join the military or have left military service rather than serve under the discriminatory law.

In the last five years, the military has discharged almost 800 mission-critical troops and at least 59 Arabic and nine Farsi linguists under the ban. David Christopher Keener was one of those brave men drummed out under the policy. I had a chance to speak to Keener and his buddy, Bryan Worthen, a straight ally who served under his command in the Coast Guard and was upset enough about the discharge to come to Pride Day in Philadelphia to support his friend.

PGN: Let’s start with basic training. Where are you from? DCK: Yes, ma’am, I was born and raised in Savannah, Ga.

PGN: You could have stopped at the “Yes, ma’am” and I would have guessed. I love Savannah. DCK: [Laughs.] A lot of people say that. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the river walk — it’s all beautiful. And yes, I have met the Lady Chablis.

PGN: Family? DCK: I come from a military family: Both mom and dad served. I have an older brother as well.

PGN: What was life like growing up in Savannah? DCK: I don’t think it was like most people imagine. Savannah is a port city, so we get a lot of different kinds of people. I grew up with an Irish, mostly conservative family but, despite that, my parents allowed us to think for ourselves and never tried to make us think like them, which was pretty remarkable. Most of my friends were very liberal. Growing up with such different cultures around, we didn’t have the stereotypes that a lot of people in the South do. We were more like the Florida or California coasts. Now go out into the sticks and it might have been a different story! Go out to Blackshear or Tiger Ridge and [he sings the banjo tune from “Deliverance”] it’s a different story. [Note: Tiger Ridge is said to be famous for inbred families and Christmas lights.]

PGN: What did you do for fun? DCK: I was into sports. I played soccer and tennis. I played street hockey with my brother. We’d go gallivanting in the woods, exploring, walking and hiking. I was really into videogames — still am. I loooove my videogames! When I got older, we hit the bars and clubs. In Savannah, you only had to be 18 to get in. Plus I knew a lot of people. I like to think I’m a friendly guy.

PGN: How was coming out? DCK: I was getting ready to join the military so I wanted to tell my mother before I signed on. She’s a remarkable person — a little eccentric, but great. She gave me a hug and said, “We’ll get through this.” I don’t really discuss it with the rest of the family. They know and they don’t know. It’s kind of our own “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” [Smiles.] But for the most part, with most people, I have no problem speaking my mind about it.

PGN: When did you realize, “Hmm, there’s something different about me?” DCK: I can’t honestly tell you. From day one, I liked the boys. I never had a girlfriend or tried to date women. I pretty much knew for as far back as I remember. I remember in kindergarten, I asked for and got a Ken doll for my birthday; I was really into him. I had my first memorable experience when I was about 17 or 18. I went with this guy I knew to his place and we started making out and that was it. It was good stuff. We were together for a long, long time after that.

PGN: How old were you when you enlisted? DCK: I was 20. So I had already been out for a while.

PGN: Were you concerned about being gay in the military? DCK: Not really. As I said, I come from a military family, so the military was very familiar to me. I knew the policy, but I figured I’d take it as it came. I was in for 10 years before getting booted. PGN: You were there for quite a while. What did you do? DCK: I was in aircraft avionics and electronics. My rank was petty officer second class. I worked on all the electronic communications on the aircraft and was the search-and-rescue flight mechanic. Basically I’m the guy who kicked the divers out of the plane and hoisted them and the victims out of the water whenever there was a sinking boat or maritime emergency.

PGN: What was the most difficult mission? DCK: Thanksgiving 2004, 3 p.m. we were heading to the galley for dinner and we got a SAR [search-and-rescue] call. We were in Northern California and the fog was unbelievably thick. There was a 600-foot container vessel, which was empty, so it was swaying back and forth like a flag flapping in the wind. Two guys had been working on a scaffold and fell off into a hole between two big gimbals and had been really hurt. I had to hoist them out from between the gimbals. It was the most challenging rescue because it was nighttime, it was foggy and we hit BINGO, which means we were running with almost no fuel left. We managed to get them out and I got an accommodation medal for it, which was pretty cool.

PGN: And yet you were still discharged … DCK: Yes, I was ultimately discharged last year on June 26. There was a court-martial regarding an incident. Within the court-martial, I had to defend myself and, in doing that, I had to reveal that I was gay. The case was not regarding me being gay, but it came up when I was under oath. I’ve never lied period about being gay, even in the military: I would just tell someone that it wasn’t relevant or their business, but I never lied. The court-martial was dropped and everything was fine, but unfortunately because of my testimony, under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I had to be discharged. All the people I worked with were really great and very supportive. My commanding officer and executive officer and all my friends in my unit were all upset that I’d been exonerated and yet, because of this technicality, I was being discharged. I told the truth and as a result got screwed.

PGN: So what do you do now? DCK: Play a lot of videogames! I’m taking some time to regroup and explore new options. I’m a creative type and big computer geek, so I’m looking to find something along those lines. I’m told that I have a nice personality, so it would be fun to do something where I can interact with people. It’s why I love doing community outreach like I did on Pride Day.

PGN: Boxers, briefs or commando? DCK: All three!

PGN: Are you a member of the mile-high club? DCK: I’m a flight mechanic — of course I am!

PGN: What kinds of books do you enjoy? DCK: I like a lot of fantasy. I love “The Lord of the Rings” series and I’m into Harry Potter as well. Good books. I’m into Christopher Rice, and Dan Brown novels are always interesting. Terry Brooks who wrote the “Shannara” series is another favorite. Al Franken on politics. I read a little bit of everything.

PGN: Are you a political guy? DCK: Oh,yes — even in the military I was always running my mouth about things, no matter who was the commander-in-chief. How could you not question the things that Bush did? I am a religious guy, but I was infuriated by all the faith-based initiatives he put forth. I am a Christian and it really angered me when he took my faith and applied his opinions to religion..

PGN: [To Bryan] Speaking of politics, what made you decide to support Christopher? BW: Well, I don’t agree with what happened to Chris. I think they need to get rid of the policy banning openly gay and lesbian military personnel. When he told me he was going to a gay Pride event, to let people know what happened to him and other gay soldiers, I told him that I wanted to help out. PGN: Is this your first time at Pride? BW: This is my first time at any gay event. It’s been fun.

PGN: What’s been the most surprising aspect? BW: I guess I expected it to be like you see in the movies or on the news, with everyone being really flamboyant, but this was just like a normal day.

PGN: So you worked with Chris? BW: Yes, he was my supervisor before they kicked him out. A lot of us disagreed with what happened. I decided to take a stand by coming out with him today.

PGN: Any concerns it could get you in trouble? BW: No: I’m straight so there’s really nothing they can do to me. DCK: The policy has a few good points, one of them being that going to Pride events or even going into a gay bar is not grounds for discharge. Supposedly, you have to have concrete proof that a homosexual act has occurred or that someone is admittedly homosexual. Unfortunately, they now can go digging on MySpace and Facebook and try to find a smoking gun.

PGN: As I understand, the policy was originally supposed to try to protect people so that they couldn’t directly ask you during recruiting or during your service if you were gay. DCK: Yes, but even so, it promotes a certain mentality that you aren’t supposed to be there, that you don’t belong. And especially that you shouldn’t be who you are. Yet we have a lot of people like Bryan who agree that the policy should be struck down and that we should be able to serve openly and honestly. I loved what I was doing, I achieved the job that I wanted and had great people around me. I thought I would spend a long time in the Coast Guard helping people and it was taken away from me. The military wants you to uphold the core values of honesty, and yet not be honest about who you are. The policy makes you lie every day just to serve your country. I’m speaking out to make sure that it doesn’t continue.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].