Benjamin Ilany, GS, promised himself he’d never lie about his sexuality—a promise he kept despite serving four years in the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
In the Air Force, he constantly heard comments like “you’re so gay” tossed around casually. His worst experience was when a civilian staffer said, “We should just hang all the fags and the poor people.”
“I really wish I could have had that one moment like in the movies where you just burst out and say, ‘You’re an a-hole, I’m gay,’” Ilany said. But he knew he couldn’t respond, so he stayed cool by playing along. Instead of reprimanding his friends, he would say, sarcastically, “Yeah, you’re right.”
“For me it was like, ‘You’re the idiot,’” Ilany said. “Nobody ever took me seriously, and even if they did take me seriously, they probably knew better than to say anything.”
Two weeks after DADT officially ended, Ilany said he was relieved that servicemembers will no longer have to feel the pressure he felt. And with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps allowed to return to Columbia thanks to DADT’s repeal, Ilany is excited that more students will be able to consider the military as a career option.
“There were a lot of statistics brought up about DADT in the ROTC debate. But what I do know is my own experience,” Ilany said. “These days it seems like a lot of people are starting to know better.”
Ilany attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York for a few semesters, but soon realized he “wasn’t mature enough for school at that time.” So he dropped out and enlisted in the Air Force, well aware of the sacrifices he was making as an openly gay man.
“I came out of the closet before enlisting,” Ilany said. “Everybody was sacrificing something, and some people don’t sacrifice much. To me, that was just one of the things I was just going to have to get past.”
The jokes tossed around by the air crew weren’t the only experiences Ilany had with DADT. When he went to language school in the military, he watched classmates get discharged for being gay.
But other anti-gay sentiments that he had to deal with came even closer to home. Ilany recalled watching television with his father and hearing about the passage of DADT in 1993, when his father turned to him and said that maybe gay people shouldn’t be in the military.
“He didn’t know better, just like most Americans, I suppose,” Ilany said.
For Ilany, serving in the military was about giving structure to his life. The transformation from a college dropout to someone trusted with people’s lives gave him a “tremendous responsibility.”
Ilany left the military in April 2010, and became a GS student in the fall. He is continuing the study of Middle Eastern languages that he began in the military. His love for the school is palpable as he talks about the special attention and assistance General Studies gives to veterans.
“GS is such an incredible place for vets,” Ilany said. “We have one woman who is an advisor just for vets and knows everything. That doesn’t exist at most schools.”
When asked why he had enlisted under DADT to begin with, Ilany paused for a moment.
“This country is obviously my home,” he said. “I figured this would be my way of solidifying my role.”
An earlier version of this article stated that Ilany began studying at GS this fall. He has been a GS student since fall 2010. Spectator regrets this error.