By As told to Alexandra Rockey Fleming
October 03, 2011 12:00 PM

For 17 years the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy forced gay service members to lie about who they are. During that time, 11,186 were discharged, while thousands more kept under the radar. Among the latter group is Staff Sgt. Jonathan Mills, 27, whose story is included in a new book, Our Time: Breaking the Silence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” by Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried. Raised in a religious family, Mills was sent as a teen to conversion therapy meant to make him straight. It didn’t work, but Mills pretended it did and lied, he says, to himself, his family and to his best friend, Stacey, who later became his wife. In 2004 he joined the Air Force, meeting with a recruiter in Pensacola, Fla.

We came to the form about being gay. Not letting a flicker of emotion register, I signed my name. I didn’t feel I was lying. I thought, “This is not about me, I’m working hard to repress this.”

In 2007 Mills deployed to Afghanistan while his wife and daughter, then 7 months old, remained at the base in Italy. His time alone, he says, “gave me a taste of what it would be like to live without having to be someone I wasn’t.” On his return, Mills admitted that he was gay, and they decided to split. He told his supervisor only that he was getting a divorce.

He said, “I want to talk to you and Stacey, to make sure you’re both okay.” Driving toward my house, I felt dread mounting in my heart. I said, “Sergeant, please stop the car. Stacey and I are getting a divorce because I’m gay.” In that moment my career was at his mercy. His reaction was, “Okay. I want you to know I still think you’re an incredible airman.”

A lot of people understand that there’s a fine line between following military orders to the T and having integrity. Expecting service members to lie about who they are-it is just wrong. Ultimately it comes down to integrity. My supervisor understood that.

After the divorce I felt like I didn’t have the same protection. People would ask me, “What did you do this weekend?” or “Mills, what kind of girls are your types?” When you don’t have a wife, you’re forced to come up with an answer. Either I’d remain silent or I’d use ‘they’ to avoid lying by saying ‘she.’ Eventually I felt I shouldn’t have to delay dating just to finish my military commitment. I started using a gay dating website in Germany, where I was stationed. There were a lot of service members on it. I was in awe; I really thought I was the only one.

After a week I ended up dating a guy, also in the Air Force, for nine months. It was a level of passion that I’d never experienced. All the little things I never thought to do with my wife now came naturally, like holding the door for him or leaving notes. But our entire command was on a curfew and could not stay at a boyfriend or girlfriend’s home unless we had explicit permission from our commander. When I requested that permission, immediately I was asked who the person was. “Um, he is a good friend,” I said. My boss said, “You’re putting in for an exception to stay with a friend?” I sweated buckets all day as the memorandum made its way up the chain. What if I had ended my career to spend a weekend with the person I loved? I was granted permission, but nobody should be put in that position. One reason we broke up was that my boyfriend received orders to England. Knowing we’d be separated, and knowing that straight service members in our situation wouldn’t necessarily have to be, left me resentful.

I’ve witnessed antigay attitudes in the military. If someone’s suspected of being gay, it seems like the entire unit will talk about them behind their backs. That being said, my personal experience of coming out to people around me has been positive. I got promoted above all my peers for senior airman. So how can you tell someone like me that I’m not qualified? I’ve been recognized for my excellence and my ability to uphold standards, so how can you say I don’t have the moral character to serve? When DADT is repealed, I expect the day will come and go with little attention in the workplace. But in the hearts and minds of all of the actively serving LGBT personnel there will be a celebration going on all day long. I haven’t heard anyone say they plan to openly advertise their being gay, although I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ll never lie again.