By Emily Starbuck Gerson
Note: The following are the interviewee’s personal thoughts and opinions and do not reflect those of the U.S. military or government.
When Billy Richardson enlisted in the Marine Corps, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy had just gone into effect. While he had a strong sense he was gay, he wasn’t out yet and thought it was something he could keep under wraps in order to serve a higher purpose.
Over time, Richardson’s inability to bring his full self to his service began to take a toll. When Richardson was stationed in New York, the 2010 suicide of bullied gay teen Tyler Clementi gave him a wake-up call. He realized the dire consequences of staying in the closet, and he made a promise to himself and to Tyler to be out for those who needed hope and someone to look up to. A year later, DADT was repealed, and Richardson could finally be authentic in all aspects of his life.
He was nervous to bring his husband to a Marine event for the first time, and while not all friends and coworkers were receptive to him being openly gay, others showed compassion and respect. Richardson has served in the Marines for 25 years and has achieved the highest enlisted rank, a Master Gunnery Sergeant (E-9). He currently serves as the Staff Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (SNCOIC) of the Installation Personnel Administrative Center (IPAC) for Marine Forces Reserve (MARFORRES) on Marine Corps Support Facility New Orleans. He is also an Equal Opportunity Advisor, a position he’s passionate about utilizing to build bridges and create more acceptance, diversity, and inclusion within the Marines.
Note: The following are the interviewee’s personal thoughts and opinions, and they do not reflect those of the U.S. military or government.
Modern Military Association of America: Can you tell us about your career in the Marines leading up to your current work in Equal Opportunity?
Billy Richardson: My primary military occupational specialty (MOS) is Administrative Specialist, but I have held different billets and collateral duties to include what was previously known as Uniformed Victim Advocate (UVA), Senior Enlisted Advisor, Equal Opportunity Representative (EOR) and my absolute favorite: Equal Opportunity Advisor (EOA).
The difference between an EOR and an EOA is that one is conducted at the unit level and requires 40 hours of training to become one, while the latter is conducted as an advisor at the Base, Installation, or Force level (O-6 and higher) and required official training and certification from the historic Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institution (DEOMI) aboard Patrick Air Force Base.
DEOMI was the best training experience that I have had in my 25 years of service. I am fortunate to have attended and wish other service members had the opportunity. I am a changed person because of it. And like other school experiences, some of the most important lessons that I learned were not on the curriculum, but from simply listening to my classmates about their lived and shared experiences. It was awesome getting a glimpse into other people’s universe as I have only been ME for 42 years. Again, I am forever changed because of it.
MMAA: When did you join the military, and did you join knowing you were gay and would have to serve in silence under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
BR: I joined the Marine Corps back in 1995 and went to boot camp the following year upon graduating from high school. The DADT policy was in place during that time and had only been put in place the year prior to my joining. By the time I actually came in, we were still working out the kinks (unfortunately, at the expense of people like me).
You see, it’s easy to change policy, but hard to change people. Historically speaking, the words are usually right; it’s the behavior that gives me pause. It’s the going from theoretical to practical. Being invisible and not static makes culture itself very hard to change. The most public and ironically relevant example of this is found in the Declaration of Independence: “…that all men are created equal…” Again, the words were right 245 year ago, but nevertheless here we are having this conversation. Furthermore, this change was definitely going to be harder for unapologetically hyper-masculine organizations like the Marine Corps.
I was in a Junior ROTC Program in high school and was about 80% sure that I wanted to serve my country before doing anything else. At the time, the DADT policy, in and of itself, wasn’t a problem for me because it was aligned with the rest of my world: no one asked and I didn’t tell (for the most part). Like most families, we had this unspoken belief that “if you don’t talk about it, it’ll go away” and/or “if you don’t say it, it’s not real.”
As far as understanding my sexuality at the time, it’s complicated. I had dated several women in my young pre-military days, but knew that I was also attracted to men. I wrestled with the term “gay” because of the stigma attached to it, including religious foundational teachings, as well as my lack of understanding of what that really even meant. There was no real gay representation anywhere. The only gay character that I knew of was Lamar Latrelle from Revenge of the Nerds. And of course, I got to hear the jokes and jargon that were made about him by those that I lived with and loved.
When folks ask me when I knew I was gay, I usually respond with, “When did you know that you were straight?” and watch the “AH-HA!” moment on their face. While I’m not a fan of the term “straight” because it implies that being anything except hetero- is crooked, I still use it sparingly to speak the basic language that I know most people will understand. After the look goes away, I then suggest that maybe the question that they meant to ask me is, “When did I know that I should be ashamed of it?” I usually get another “AH-HA!” face.
The reason why this is all so complicated is that we live in a heteronormative world. To understand what I mean, I simply ask people to reflect back to their childhoods and to consider all the hetero messages they received from commercials, advertisements, art, paintings, movies, books, stories, poems, dancing, songs/music (to include the lyrics, pronouns used and who sung what to whom), etc.
This unrealized majority privilege of representation later shows up in people’s well-intentioned response to this topic: “We don’t care about your sexuality and no one should be bringing it to work anyway!” But the reality is that most people do, be it a picture on their desk of their significant other, their children and family their discussion of what they did over the weekend, the music they listen to, their unsolicited comments about who’s attractive and who’s not, military sponsored “family” days, promotion ceremonies, who is selected to escort a spouse during a ceremony, who is brought to the military birthday ball, etc.
Even with all of this embedded gender and sexuality role-play messaging going on, young hetero folks are confused. Now consider how much more confused young folx (intentionally spelled differently) are that do not fit in the hetero- box.
MMAA: What was it like for you serving in the Marines under DADT?
BR: There was a lot of anxiety. When I share that with people, I think there is a misunderstanding; I wasn’t worried about being called names or losing friends (which, eventually, I did). It was about losing my career and being discharged.
In the military, we talk a lot about “sacrifice,” but my reality is that some have served and never really been asked to give of something so important, and for the privilege of serving our beloved country. It’s why I have some much respect for some of the most senior women leaders in the military. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of them are single and without children. They are choosing their country over self, and so many times I think it goes unnoticed.
Over they years, I’ve asked a lot of hetero males if they would have made the same sacrifices to serve, and the answers were very interesting, even the frequent pauses from those who eventually said yes. And not to compare or compete with women over battle wounds and scars of who bears the heavier hardship, but going back to the question, I can more so relate with women like Deborah Sampson who had to completely hide her identity just so she could serve her country. You would have thought the policy would have changed after her great contribution, but no. Women are just recently being allowed to officially participate in some of the reindeer games.
MMAA: I’ve seen you speak about Tyler Clementi and how much he means to you; could you share how his story and death have impacted your life?
BR: I thought I was actually okay with the DAT policy…until I wasn’t. Let’s just say I had a S.E.E. (Significant Emotional Event). I was the Admin Chief for Recruiting Station New York, and one day I heard a story on the news. A young man named Tyler Clementi, who was a freshmen at Rutgers University right across the bridge, had asked his roommate to borrow the room for a date, but his roommate suspected that he was gay. So he positioned his computer to catch Tyler and his male date kissing. The roommate captured it and proceeded to send it viral, and Tyler committed suicide shortly thereafter.
I was messed up for the next two to three weeks. I would literally be talking to someone at the service counter and would have to excuse myself so I could go cry. Looking back on it now, it was both the geographical and metaphorical proximity that struck me.
For the first time, I was forced to face that I was in what felt like a loveless relationship with the organization that I had spent the last 15 years in. I felt that IF I had made the ultimate sacrifice and even saved a whole unit full of my comrades doing it, that the person that I loved wouldn’t even be worthy to receive the folded flag “on behalf of a grateful nation.”
I also realized that my silence was not okay. I asked myself, how many other Tylers were out there? How many more LGBTQ+ kids and young adults who are suffering in silence have to die so I could get my pension? I realized that young folks like me NEEDED me, but at the moment I felt like I was too busy taking care of ME and making sure hetero-folks feel comfortable.
I felt like I had betrayed Tyler and so many others just like him who needed me and had no one to look up to. I didn’t want to do it anymore; I was done and had every intention on just gracefully bowing out at 15 years. Tyler jumped on September 22, 2010. Strangely enough, the repeal took place September 20, 2011. I decided to stay, but I promised Tyler and the many others like him in the grave — and myself — that I would never allow anyone else to closet me again. The ongoing joke now is when people ask how many years I’m going to do, I say “30!” My logic is that I was made to be uncomfortable for 15 years and now I owe that discomfort back to the military IN FULL!
MMAA: Were you able to do anything to speak up about DADT and fight for the repeal? I know many were unable to due to fear of discharge.
BR: I don’t want to take ANY credit from those brave souls who actually stood up for what was right, so I’m going to say no. I stand on the shoulders of service members like Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, US Air Force, who, for his valiant conduct in Vietnam, was “given a medal for killing two men and discharged for loving one.”
Again, I stand on their shoulders, and I guess my way of paying the debt I owe to them is by being present as my authentic self. It is not lost on me and is truly humbling to remember that people (the Marines of Montfort Point as well as the many LGBTQ+ folx who came before me) paid for me to be here and therefore I owe it to them to make everyday count and do what they weren’t allowed to. What they did wasn’t for nothing, and there is still unfinished business that must be attended to.
MMAA: What did it feel like when DADT was repealed and you were able to live and serve authentically without fear?
BR: Truth? I realized how absolutely amazing and resilient I am! But let me be clear, it’s not without fear. In Disney’s new release of Mulan, her father says, “There is no courage without fear.” That’s actually a perfect way to answer this question.
Spoiler alert for those who have not seen the film, but she hides her identity to go fight for the Emperor’s Army in her elder father’s stead. During training, she’s still hiding her true identity but feels slightly guilty as she realizes she is living a lie. After training, she goes into combat and ends up facing a powerful woman one-on-one, who is referred to as a witch. The witch, knowing that Mulan is really a woman, asks, “Who are you?” Mulan gives her a fake male name. Then the witch says something so phenomenal: “Liar! Your deceit weakens you. It poisons your chi” (which is the boundless energy of life itself, almost like “The Force” in Star Wars).
She asks again and Mulan lies again, and then the witch replies, “Then you will die pretending to be something you’re not.” She metaphorically kills Mulan’s male facade and then Mulan comes alive and starts operating in authenticity and becomes the best version of herself. I had a moment watching it all play out on screen.
Like Mulan, I realized that I am a better ME than a counterfeit anyone else. My chi has since been restored and refocused. My real first experience was taking my husband to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball in 2015. Before the event, I worked myself into a semi-panic attack.
Again, all these folks didn’t even “know” I was gay, let alone married. These were folks that I have known for years, it just never came up. We got there and had a great time. Everyone was nice and kind to us. What was actually strange was the next workday. I was approached by some pretty senior folks and they all pretty much said the same thing, about how “brave” we were. And I must say, I really appreciated that language.
To me, it was an acknowledgment of where we really were as a nation as well as an organization that I had to be “brave” to bring my spouse to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. Mind you, we don’t use that word loosely. While they didn’t realize it at the moment, I really appreciated them understanding the gravity of the situation. Sadly, I did have a few coworkers and even friends that I noticed wouldn’t be in a room alone with me afterwards. Oh well, their loss. And unfortunately, I know my military sisters deal with this daily.
With all of that being said, my biggest accomplishment thus far wasn’t fitting in and being more like everyone else, it was learning how to be ME. Once I was able to refocus my energy, I can assure you that I became a better Marine. The Marine Corps just released an amazing recruiting commercial about “the battle to belong.” I think people need to have more discussions on the difference between “belonging” and “fitting in.” There is a huge difference. The folks who are forced to fit in are oftentimes required to assimilate as the rules and regulation were not written with them in mind. It can be exhausting, and your silence is the tax you pay to be a member of the team.
MMAA: What progress have you seen since then, but also, where is there still room for improvement? What can the military do better for LGBTQ people, people of color, and other minorities and marginalized communities?
BR: I’ve seen lots of progress from the time I came in. I can’t necessarily give anyone credit because the country evolved and did so without anyone’s permission. But what I will say is that I wish we had more candid conversations about history, and not just the good stuff. It would be nice to hear someone say the powerful three words — not “I love you” but “We were wrong”.
Not doing so makes folks feel “tolerated,” which, contrary to popular belief, is NOT a good thing. Knowing that you are only here because of a congressional mandate is not a good feeling. During one of my workshops, I had a young male Captain tell me that being LGBT was being forced upon him. I asked him how so. He said it was his religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. I said okay and asked again how the military is forcing anything on him and he said the same thing again. I then explained to him, “If you don’t believe in same-sex marriage, then simply don’t marry someone of the same sex.”
Groundbreaking, right? Then I said, “If or when the military requires you to marry another man THEN it would, in fact, be forcing LGBT upon you. But as of now, all you are being required to do is treat others, who don’t share your religious beliefs, with dignity and respect. And if that’s too much to ask, then you might want to join another organization.“ You could see him physically relax after that. He said, “Wow! Thank you for that. I never even thought about it that way.” The power of having a conversation without feeling obligated to label everyone as a hero or a villain.
Also, we are still celebrating “the first” in such a way that can be considered condemning. Half-truths and/or gapped stories. Sometimes I think we are so obsessed with positivity that we prefer it over truth. While well intentioned I’m sure, some of the messages almost imply that someone from that respective demographic was “just now“ good enough to accomplish that specific feat. All while never mentioning the systems that were put in place to deliberately disenfranchise whole groups of people and preventing them from reaching certain levels and accomplishments.
I’m not a “changing heart and minds” type of person. I believe that will come over time. More importantly, what’s in your heart and mind are really none of my business, until it shows up externally in your behavior. But I’m a tangibles type of person, and there are so many tangibles that I’d like to see come to fruition before I retire. One of which is affinity groups.
We say the numbers don’t lie, but actually sometimes they do. Consider something that may specifically impact white males as a group. Now, say it impacts 60% of that group. Because of the population size, it will get the attention, time, money, resources, etc. that it needs to be addressed. But say you have a situation that affects 60% of females. The numbers are too small and therefore may not get the needed attention it deserves.
In the former situation, we’ll synonymously say, “The Organization has an issue!” Whereas the latter situation goes unattended due to a lack of numeric significance. I believe affinity groups would take care of that. They would give sight for the many blind spots that exist when it comes to minority groups, and this could/should include groups outside of the protected category realm as needed (i.e. caregivers, single parents, parents with LGBTQ+ kids, etc.). Each affinity group would have a manager as a centralized collection of information and that information would be reported to senior leadership on a routine basis (quarterly or bi-annually) to fix the blind spots and gaps.
MMAA: As an EO advisor, why do you believe diversity and inclusion are so important in the Marines and military as a whole?
BR: General Patton said it best when he analogously described commanders on the battlefield as conductors of a fine orchestra: “There is still a tendency in each separate unit … To be a one-handed puncher. By that I mean the rifleman wants to shoot, the tanker to charge, the artilleryman to fire … That is not the way to win battles. If the band played a piece first with the piccolo, then with the brass horn, then with the clarinet, and then with the trumpet there would be a hell of a lot of noise but no music. To get harmony in music each instrument must support the others. To get harmony in battle, each weapon must support the other. Team play wins. You musicians of Mars … Must come into the concert at the proper place and at the proper time.”
We seem to understand this in war, but it can be suspect everywhere else. Diversity is one of our strengths. I already know what I know, so why would I surround myself with like-minded people who only know what I know? If I am problem-solving, I need as many other perspectives in the room or conversation as possible.
I’m talking about going from ethnocentric to ethno-relative, where you’re not “tolerating” my differences but actively seeking it out. So it’s not enough to have people at the table who look different but think the same, nor it is enough to invite different types of people to the party and never ask them to dance or play their music or go to their party. We should be learning who is in our ranks and becoming allies for them.
It cannot just be about policies and paperwork. Again, the paperwork has always been right. Another example would be the preamble that starts off as “We the People.” Thurgood Marshall said it best during his bicentennial speech when he said things were “defective from the start” since “We the People” did not include every American. This work of diversity, equity and inclusion ensures that all people are included.
MMAA: Would you like to share any thoughts on racism and extremism in the military, and why it’s so important it is tackled head on?
BR: Ironically, I think racism and extremism are missed because some people are only thinking of extreme cases. If people are only looking for extreme cases, we’re going to miss it every time. If a person has already decided what an extremist and a racist looks like, it’s so much easier to walk into a training session and listen to all of the information in such a way that says, “I’ll share this information should I come upon any racists or extremists.”
What I believe would be extremely helpful is reflecting on self-behavior as opposed to the behavior of others during these sessions. And we have to actually talk about it. I believe in celebrating what we have accomplished as well as telling that truth about what still needs to be done. What we don’t acknowledge, we can’t address; what we don’t address, we can’t make the progress we ought. We have to cross the bridge from who we were to who we are. And then from who we are to who we mean to be. That takes work and uncomfortable discussions. We have to be willing to have them.
And after all the talking is done, it’s not enough to just say we care about something or that we have friends of a certain group or just come to an event to be seen.
But it’s about taking action. Action, in the absence of the lights, camera, and confetti. It’s about exercising not what is easy, but what is right in the moment of choice. We can’t just talk about change and hope it happens as we do with the weather.
Like the other things that are important to us, we have to be strategic and deliberate in this unfinished work. It’s about hungering for truth regardless of the discomfort. I find it ironic and unfortunate that the same people who patriotically brag about how strong we are as a nation and military think that every little thing can and will destroy us. For me, nothing worth having came easy, fast or the first time around. The juice will be worth the squeeze! I believe we are worth it, our military is worth it, and the nation in which we serve is worth it.