The military has lots of rules and they are all expected to be followed. United States Marine Corps Sergeant Justin Elzie, wanting to make a difference, followed a rule of integrity and came out publicly on ABC Evening World News in January 1993. He became the first Marine discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and later reinstated, becoming the first Marine to challenge Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with a federal court case and went on to serve four years openly gay.
In Playing By The Rules retired Marine Sergeant Justin Elzie takes the reader on an autobiographical journey of self-discovery from his early years growing up on a farm in Wyoming to joining the Marine Corps and finding an underground gay subculture within the military.
When Bill Clinton campaigned for President in 1992, one of his campaign promises was to end the U.S. military’s absolute ban on gay and lesbian service people and he initiated a review of the policy once he took office. However, faced with homophobic opposition from within the government and the ranks of the military, he caved to the pressure and instead of abolishing the ban he implemented Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) in November 1993. Calling it “an honourable compromise” DADT did not require service people to reveal their sexual orientation and permitted gays and lesbians to serve in the military, so long as they remained silent about their sexual orientation and did not engage in same-sex acts. In reality there was no honour in this compromise and from a policy perspective DADT split hairs and muddied waters but did nothing to implement equal rights for gay and lesbian service people within the U.S. military. In fact, for eighteen years DADT actually accelerated discharges rather than reduce them, culminating in the discharge of over 13,000 service men and women under the policy. In December 2010, after almost two decades of hard effort by organizations and individuals devoted to the equal treatment of LGBT service people (both within and outside of the military) and a majority vote in both the U.S. Congress and the Senate, President Obama signed the repeal of this regressive and discriminatory policy. The repeal of DADT was formally implemented on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 12:01 a.m.
Playing By The Rules by retired Marine Sergeant Justin Elzie is an autobiographical account of his public coming out in 1993 after a decade of service, and a detailed chronicle of what he endured within the military as a consequence. Elzie was the first Marine to be discharged under DADT, and while legal challenges to the policy began almost as soon as it was passed, Elzie was the first Marine to challenge the policy in federal court. Reinstated during his court challenge, he went on to serve four years as an openly gay Marine before retiring from the Corps in 1997.
The book begins with Elzie’s account of that fateful day on January 29, 1993 when, one week after Clinton’s inauguration, he publicly comes out on ABC’s Evening World News. At first, buoyed by optimism that Clinton’s campaign promise and policy review would finally abolish the absolute ban, and wanting to make a positive difference within the Marine Corps, he explains that coming out publicly was something that he felt he had to do no matter the consequence and that “the decision to come out was above all a deeply spiritual experience.”
Despite his conviction Elzie did not underestimate the gravity of his decision to come out. His narrative candidly conveys his apprehension and anxiety over the seriousness of what he was about to do, providing the reader with a clear understanding of how life-altering his action would be not only in relation to himself as a Marine, but also in respect of his family, fellow Marines and in particular his boyfriend John, also a member of the Corps.
“0530 hours 29 January 1993 Camp Lejeune, North Carolina
As I lay in bed I thought of the day ahead of me. Turning over on my side I looked at John sleeping next to me. My heart ached because I loved him so much and he looked so vulnerable and yet extremely angry with what I was about ready to do. I had an apprehension that only a recruit on his first night at boot camp would appreciate. Since being presented a couple of days ago with the opportunity of coming out and making the decision on Thursday, I had an instinctive internal drive, almost animal like, to come out in a public way, and nothing was going to stop me. I felt like I was on a train to destiny that I couldn’t get off, even if I wanted to.”
The reader is then taken back to Elzie’s birthplace in Cheyenne, Wyoming, chronicling his childhood, adolescence and family life; his realization that he is gay and the difficult and estranged relations with his parents and brother after coming out to his family, further strained in later years as a result of his public activism for full equality of LGBT service people. Elzie enlisted in 1982, and the remainder of the book is devoted to his experiences as a Marine from boot camp to his retirement.
Described by many of his immediate superiors as an exemplary Marine with outstanding performance reviews and assessments throughout his career, he quickly rose through the ranks and with each assignment was given increasing responsibilities. Elzie received two meritorious promotions, being named Marine of the Year and served as an American Embassy Guard. While in service and before publicly coming out, Elzie lived as an out gay man in his private life sharing an off-base home with his boyfriend John and had a network of close personal friends in the military’s LGBT community. Elzie observes that, “over the years, I had learned how to ride that fine line, and to be as out as I could without getting caught.” But with his public coming out in 1993, the top brass within the Marine Corps and all the way to the Pentagon immediately began an ongoing campaign of harassment and attempts to discredit him, preventing him from further promotions within the Corps despite continued outstanding performance evaluations, with the ultimate goal of discharging him under DADT. During this period, Elzie and many of the service men in his circle of friends, including his boyfriend John, were also plagued by unending investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS), the federal law enforcement agency charged with conducting investigations of felony-level offenses affecting the Navy and Marine Corps.
What resonates most with Elzie’s story is that despite all that he endured, his commitment to duty, service and being the best Marine he could possibly be never wavered. Coming out and his experiences in the aftermath of his decision politicized him and he joined many of the activists, both within and outside of the military, to fight for the repeal of DADT. Elzie’s autobiography exposes many of the myths and outright lies promulgated by those opposing the equal treatment of LGBT service people that somehow out gays and lesbians would adversely affect the ability of heterosexual service people to serve effectively. It also exposes the underhanded tactics employed by the military to harass, discredit and discharge him under DADT. And yet, despite the military’s attempts, Elzie’s experiences after his public coming out with many (although not all) of his immediate superiors and fellow Marines were for the most part positive and supportive.
I enjoyed Playing By The Rules for what it is, an intimate and detailed account of one man’s journey for acceptance and justice for who and what he is by his family, the Marines, the military and ultimately the country that he served. While Elzie’s journey was often a difficult one, with doubts and losses along the way – his relationship with John did not survive the military’s harassment and quest to have him discharged – he remained true to himself and his oath as a Marine. Elzie writes the following in the Epilogue:
My hope in writing this book is that it becomes part of the conversation getting rid of the ban on gays in the military and makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Right now I feel more determined than ever to finish the mission that I started seventeen years ago, to change the Marine Corps for the better, and to stop the discrimination against my LGBT sisters and brothers in the military. I hope this book does that.
Playing By The Rules was published less than a month before President Obama signed the repeal of DADT and while because of the timing the book may not have greatly impacted the debate surrounding DADT, it is clearly apparent that Elzie’s actions and activism (along with those of countless others) certainly contributed to not only the conversation surrounding DADT but also the policy’s eventual demise.
Playing By The Rules by Justin Crockett Elzie is available at Rebel Satori Press.
NOTE: This review was originally published at Three Dolar Bill Reviews.