Will and Erwynn met at church and fell in love. But they had a big problem—“don’t ask, don’t tell.” The unlikely story of the first gay military union.
Both young men had done what they were supposed to do. They had gone to school, gotten married, and had kids. But something wasn’t right. “Sometimes,” Will recalls, “I’d look out the window of my bedroom and think, ‘Is this really it? There’s something missing.’ ” Erwynn had the same uneasy feeling: “I was still looking for something else that I know I’m not supposed to be looking for.”
In 2005, while stationed in Korea, Erwynn split from his wife. Both of them say that the divorce was unrelated to his sexuality. Erwynn asked to be stationed at McGuire-Dix in New Jersey in order to be closer to his sons, who were living in Maryland at the time. In 2006, still recovering from his divorce and looking to join a community, he accepted a co-worker’s invitation to visit Solid Rock Baptist Church. The congregation seemed friendly and appreciated his military service. He felt valued.
Erwynn thought that by going to a church that preached against homosexuality, he could convince himself he wasn’t gay. He thought Solid Rock could give him the structure and resolve to stay straight. Instead, as anti-gay messages rang from the pulpit, Erwynn’s eyes wandered to the third row on the left side. There, they fell on an attractive young man: the choir director.
Will and Erwynn were introduced by a mutual friend at church. Over the course of a few years, they became friends. Erwynn was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, working with the provincial reconstruction team. He handled convoy communications and driving Humvees. He was also a gunner. During his deployment, the two men grew closer, staying in touch through email and text messages. Later that year, when Erwynn returned home, they were confused and distressed about their feelings for each other. Will had already felt distance brewing in his marriage. Now, on top of that, he was attracted to Erwynn. Each man wondered whether the other felt the same way. Will, fearing disappointment, began to cool to Erwynn’s friendship. “This is never going to happen,” he told himself.
A church retreat saved them. The all-male, two-day trip, featuring softball, paintball, and thrice-daily preaching sessions, was supposed to promote fellowship. It gave Will and Erwynn quality time together. They felt closer and more bonded. They began testing the waters with flirtatious emails. Will worried about being separated from his children if he left his wife to pursue a relationship with Erwynn. “I still want my kids,” Will thought, “but I know I’m slowly falling in love with a man.”
Erwynn’s final attempt to straighten himself out, a second marriage to a woman from Solid Rock collapsed in 2009 after only a few months. That’s when Will and Erwynn admitted their feelings to each other and began a romantic relationship. Will knew what he wanted, but the price was enormous. He would lose not only his marriage, but also likely his parents, siblings, and all of his Baptist friends. Erwynn stopped attending Solid Rock, knowing the congregants would be appalled by his relationship with Will. Members of the congregation encouraged Will to cut off his friendship with Erwynn, since Erwynn had rejected the church.
The secrecy of the relationship began to wear on Will. He started to make excuses for not attending church. This left the congregation without a choir director and raised red flags, in the community and with his wife, that something was wrong. On Feb. 17, 2010, when Will came home from work, all of the lights in his house were on. He saw several familiar cars parked out front. His father, who lived two hours away, was waiting for him in the street.
Terror mounted in Will as he walked into his living room with his father. There, he found his wife, three pastors from the church, and one of the pastors’ wives. Will backed into a corner as the others sat around him. After an opening prayer and a heavy silence, one of the pastors turned to Will. “I don’t know how else to say this,” he prefaced. “Is there something going on with you and Erwynn?”
Will told the truth. “Yes,” he said. His wife jumped up and ran out of the room, followed by the pastor’s wife. Will knew what was coming next: They would try to “cure” him and save his marriage. But he was done pretending. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said. He walked out of the house and got into his car. The group chased him down the block and called him on his phone, urging him to come back to the house. Instead, he drove away. He texted Erwynn: “I’m coming home.”
Will’s life had exploded. But the hiding wasn’t over. Under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Erwynn could lose his job if anyone reported to his commanding officer that he was gay. If an investigation was opened, irrespective of his job performance, he could be discharged, just like 14,500 other servicemen and -women purged under DADT. Will collected two carloads of possessions and took them to Erwynn’s one-bedroom apartment. There, they began their life together in cloistered isolation, not knowing how long they’d have to maintain their secret.
They were no longer welcome at Solid Rock. With one phone call, any congregant who had claimed to love the military could end Erwynn’s career. Two members of the church who worked on base were senior enough to start an official investigation into Erwynn’s sexuality anytime. He caught a member of the church surreptitiously taking photos of him and Will together at Wal-Mart. Was she building a case to turn in to the military? Erwynn didn’t know. (Solid Rock Baptist Church did not respond to requests for comment.) The couple strategized about how they would get by on one income if Erwynn was discharged. Whenever they went out to eat dinner or buy groceries, they scanned for familiar faces. Even on trips to Philadelphia or New York City, they ran into people they knew. Nowhere felt safe.
Katherine Goldstein is the Innovations Editor at Slate, involved in site-wide innovations related to social media, traffic, and new editorial technology.