A Soldier’s Story

26, October 2016
Steve ZeigerRetired U.S. Air Force master sergeant Steve Zeiger, a Soldiers Memorial commissioner and the director of operations for Pride St. Louis.

When I joined the U.S. Air Force in September 1980 via the Delayed Entry Program, I immediately discovered that being homosexual in the military wasn’t allowed. The section of my enlistment form asking me to check whether I was homosexual made that pretty clear. In spite of this, I wanted to serve my country and travel the world. I also knew this would be the best experience for me to grow, to become something on my own.

Seal of the United States Air ForceA few months later, on January 31, 1981, I entered basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. I was as scared and fearful as a 19-year-old could be, but I did it. A few weeks into the training, my technical instructor (TI) walked up to me and asked if I was gay—only he didn’t put it that nicely. The words "Sir, no, sir" flew out of my mouth in response. My TI then told me that if he found out I was, he’d have me kicked out faster than I could blink an eye. Failure wasn’t an option to me, so I sought out the most masculine guy in my flight. I emulated all his actions, from how he shaved and made his bed to how he walked. I did whatever I could to get rid of anything “gay” the TI was detecting. I persevered, graduated from basic training, and went on to my first assignment at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington.

During my service, I only experienced a few isolated times where someone called me a gay slur or got in my face. Thinking about those days and comparing them to how far the LGBTQIA community has come, I’m truly amazed. I never thought I’d see the United States embrace its LGBTQIA citizens with equal rights the way it has. I never dreamed of actually feeling free in this country founded on the idea of freedom. As a nation, we’ve grown so far from the days when people endured incredibly painful criticisms and even death just for being who they were. Now, openly gay service members fight for their country, right alongside their straight brothers and sisters in arms. Witnessing these changes in government regulations and the perspectives of my fellow citizens confirms that my service—and the service of all gay members of the military—isn’t taken for granted. It proves that our service matters and that when we lay our lives on the line to protect our nation’s freedom and safety, we’re protecting things we ourselves can finally enjoy.

A view of the PrideFest wreath-laying ceremony.A view of the PrideFest wreath-laying ceremony. Image courtesy of Steve Zeiger.

I'm proud of my service, proud of creating PrideFest’s wreath-laying ceremony, and proud of being the director of operations for Pride St. Louis. All of these things—combined with the changes in our country—have led to my appointment as a member of St. Louis’s Soldiers Memorial Commission. This is something that wouldn’t have been possible when I first joined the military, and from my understanding I’m the first openly gay commissioner on a board such as this throughout the nation. I don’t take lightly representing all the U.S. citizens who identify as LGBTQIA and who have served, are serving, and wish to serve in the future. The pride I felt serving my country—and now the pride I feel serving as a commissioner for Soldiers Memorial—drives me every day.

—Steve Zeiger, Soldiers Memorial Commissioner and Director of Operations for Pride St. Louis