The unrelenting ordinariness of gay vet Bronson Lemer makes him the perfect face and voice of the first post-DADT Veterans Day. It also makes him as sexy as two of his better-known fellow gay vets whom I have had the honor of interviewing repeatedly, the fiery preacher Dan Choi and the magnetic heartthrob Reichen Lehmkuhl.
Bronson Lemer is a regular, standard-issue American guy. I heard this in his unrehearsed voice during our conversation about the upcoming holiday, and about his recently published book describing his deployment in Iraq, The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq (University of Wisconsin Press).
Lemer, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota and was named after movie star Charles Bronson, likes chocolate and peanut butter. And Oatmeal Crisp cereal. See what I mean? His memories of a wild time encompass only a brief college phase in which he sported a fauxhawk and drank some tequila. My shockometer is unmoved. Also during his college years, Bronson was part of the National Guard, which he had joined while in high school. A few months short of the end of his National Guard obligation, he received the letter telling him of his deployment to Iraq in January 2003.
He described his reaction to that letter: "I was pretty bitter. I thought the military was not the place for me. I was an engineer and a carpenter. I was sure the military was the wrong profession. I didn't like the 'hurry up and wait' aspect of the military. Also, I had come out to a lot of my friends, but not to my fellow soldiers. Even though it was against DADT rules, some military personnel asked me if I was gay. I always said no."
At the time of his deployment, Lemer's return date was unspecified. He had no way of knowing how long he would have to endure life in the army. As a coping mechanism, he began writing email messages to an ex-boyfriend. Some of the messages were poetic reflections on romance and desire. Often, Lemer would compose these messages but never send them. Eventually, they became what some readers consider the best part of the book he wrote about his experience. Lemer remains friends with that ex, and has had some positive feedback from military personnel who served with him under DADT and who have now read about what he had kept secret.
He says, "I wrote the book because it was an opportunity to explain why I wasn't able to serve as an openly gay man, which is what I would have preferred. My purpose was to tell a story that had not yet been told. When I got back from Iraq in 2004, I severed all ties with the people I knew in the military. I regret this. Through the book, I have reconnected with some of them in a good way."
Through the book and subsequent speaking engagements, Lemer has had what he calls "the extraordinary chance to hear from the youngest people in the active military." He is happy to report that for them, a person's sexuality is simply a non-issue. Lemer feels that most soldiers never shared the Pentagon's panic over the repeal of DADT.
Today, Lemer is not bitter about his time in Iraq, and he speaks highly of his military experience, which, he says, gave him a sense of pride, honor and personal health. What does he think about President Obama's recent announcement that America will pull out of Iraq? "I think it is great that we are at that point. When I was over there, I realized the extent of what we had done by getting into that country. I'm excited about the news."
Lemer lives in Rochester, Minnesota, 80 miles outside Minneapolis-St. Paul. He currently teaches writing at the University of Rochester, a profession no closer to his original engineering and carpentry skills than was his military career. He is single and available, and says that he figures he will know the right man when he sees him. Maybe that Mister Right will take note of the fact that Instinct Magazine has named Lemer one of its "Leading Men of 2011."
On a personal note, as America enters a time when being gay in the military becomes a non-issue and no longer a headline-generator, we will begin to make the acquaintance of the many men and women who kept their sexuality secret while protecting our freedoms. I want to hear the voice and see the face of each and every one of them. Not just the pretty ones, not just the ones who chain themselves to the White House fence, not just the cinematically heroic ones, or the ones who ride in Pride parades and have already received the thanks they have well earned. There are many more Bronson Lemers, and I hope that each of them will receive my appreciation for the service they delivered to safeguard the life I continue to enjoy.
(This profile is also featured on the front page of 10thousandcouples.com)