For centuries, LGBTQIA+ sailors served their country in silence. From the early days of Continental Navy, through USS Constitution’s active sailing years, and into the 20th century, homosexuality was a crime subject to punishment by court martial, usually resulting in discharge. Beginning in World War II, the military instituted an outright ban on homosexual service members.1 It wasn’t until 1993 that a new law colloquially called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) took effect, theoretically lifting the ban by suspending questions and discussions among military personnel about sexual orientation.2
Brooklyn native Robert Santiago joined the U.S. Navy in 1988, during the military’s ban on LGBTQIA+ people serving openly in the armed forces. At the time, the question on 17-year-old Santiago’s mind was, “What’s going to happen while I’m in service, while I’m wearing the uniform?” Santiago, who is gay, resolved that he would do everything possible to finish at least one tour of duty. “I was very careful the first couple of years, when I was onboard the USS Guam,” he recalled in an oral history interview with the USS Constitution Museum in 2022.3 “I made sure I went to no gay bars, and if I did it was far away…As long as I didn’t do anything wrong, or what was perceived to be wrong by the code of military conduct, then I was okay. But it was tough.”
Though Santiago had to conceal part of his identity while in the Navy, he successfully completed his first tour and began his second duty station in Belgium. “It was still very hard,” he remembers. “There was still that perception that everybody was straight. And then you start hearing the homophobic remarks, and you then start hearing about this person being gay, and that person’s a you-know-what…It was really affecting me…I just had to do the best that I can to let it go and just try to distance myself from those people that would say those remarks.”
In 1993, while Santiago was stationed in Belgium, Congress enacted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At the time, Santiago considered the law “groundbreaking,” but it still required LGBTQIA+ service members to hide their sexual orientation. “It was historic,” he recalls of that moment. “But the weeks following, once the smoke settled, there were still people who were getting discharged from the military…so that’s when we all started to realize that, hey, this is just a discriminatory policy.” Over the nearly 18 years that DADT was law, thousands of service members were discharged for engaging in “homosexual conduct,” which included being in a same-sex relationship.4
The remainder of Santiago’s 20-year naval career was spent under the shadow of DADT. In addition to Belgium, Santiago served in Puerto Rico, Panama, and Japan, and participated in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Eastern Exit, and Iraqi Freedom. It was at a duty station in Puerto Rico, where his family is from, that Santiago felt he “really started to come out to myself.” Being among family and friends in a familiar culture provided Santiago the support he needed to venture out and live authentically as himself. “For the most part no one cared,” he recalls. “But that thought was always in the back of my head; that if I’m with somebody, something happens, and they said, ‘Well, I’m going to report you to your commanding officer.’ Then there’s an issue there. But I just decided that I needed to just be myself from that point on. And I did.”
Santiago reported for duty at USS Constitution in March 2006 as a Yeoman First Class. At that time, DADT was still in effect in the military, but marriage equality had been legally recognized in Massachusetts since 2004. His partner, who he introduced to shipmates as his “cousin,” fully understood Santiago’s career and the personal sacrifices that came with it. “He supported whatever I wanted to do because he understood what I was going through in the military.”
At work, Santiago found strength in the camaraderie he experienced as part of Constitution’s crew. While ships out in the fleet have crews of hundreds or thousands of sailors, USS Constitution is a small, diverse unit of around 70 sailors. Some sailors are fresh out of bootcamp, some are returning from the fleet, and some, like Santiago, are nearing retirement and reintegration into the civilian community. Santiago remembers feeling a “sense of family,” where sailors helped each other out to “give the best tour we can.”
As a petty officer, he also took on a leadership role in mentoring junior sailors on Constitution. He would tell the younger sailors, “You need to understand you joined the Navy, you swore an oath…it’s something special that we all did at one point in our lives that is unique to us as America’s service members.” Despite DADT, some sailors would divulge to him that they were gay. “My response was, ‘Ok, whatever, just go back to work. You want to talk, we can talk later.’” Santiago explains that he intentionally downplayed these interactions because “it didn’t define that sailor.”
He understood that the military often mirrors what happens in the civilian community, but sometimes the military is ahead of the civilian community. “While [DADT] was smoke and mirrors, it was a small step. Something that the federal government didn’t take at the time.” As a mentor, he also understood that leadership was integral in setting the tone. In his experience, adherence to DADT depended on the individual commanding officers. Some commanding officers were indifferent, others sought out proof to confirm a service member’s sexual orientation. “It’s up to the leadership that’s in place,” Santiago asserts. “Either at the local level, at the command level, and as high as the senior level in the Pentagon, to ensure that those issues are taken care of at all levels.” USS Constitution’s commanding officer at the time, Commander William Bullard, was supportive of Santiago.
Regardless, Santiago’s difficulties persisted until the day he retired from the Navy on board USS Constitution in 2008, and those challenges continued post-retirement. “When I retired, I wanted to find a way to recognize my boyfriend, my fiancé…I wanted to recognize him in my retirement speech. It was very important for me to do so. I called the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network [now Modern Military Association of America] at the time and I asked for advice. And their advice was, ‘You can mention him; just don’t say you love him. Just recognize him in a very formal way outside of love.’ So I did mention him in my speech. But I still put my career on the line because I still had a month on my contract.” By publicly alluding to his partner, Santiago risked losing the military benefits he had worked toward over his 20-year career. But, he also knew he had the support of Commander Bullard. “I already knew that with [Commander Bullard] it wasn’t important that you were gay. It was important that you were able to continue the mission of the ship, to be able to represent the Constitution, to be able to represent the Navy in the way that you were selected to do so.”
Two years later, the Senate voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DADT officially ended on September 20, 2011.5 LGBTQIA+ military members now serve openly in the United States’ armed forces.
In 2016, the same year he got married, Santiago joined the City of Boston’s Office of Veteran Services. He is the first Puerto Rican and LGBTQ Veterans’ Commissioner in Boston’s history.6 “It was very important for me to really start being who I am to let people know that there are sailors, there are service members, that are like me. And what I mean by ‘like me’ is we did the job. We took that oath. We finished our careers after 20 years with honor and distinction and sacrifice. And who we love is an extension of us and of who we are and what brought us to where we are at that particular time, whether in service or out of service.”
Among his many other duties, Santiago now works with veterans from all branches of the military who were discharged for being gay and refused veteran benefits. “We work with Veteran Legal Services to upgrade those bad paper discharges, especially for homosexuality. The biggest problem with that is… sometimes the reason for discharge wasn’t put down as homosexuality. It could be incompatible with military service, it could be bad conduct due to whatever. So that’s where we have to be able to ascertain that this service member truly is gay and ensure that we can upgrade their paperwork.” The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) now allows veterans who were discharged due to their sexual orientation to receive benefits, including compensation and pension, healthcare, and the GI Bill. At the state level, Santiago is working with fellow Veteran Service Officers to align the Massachusetts state benefits with VA guidelines. For those veterans who are disillusioned and distrustful of the government because of their experience, he tells them, “If you don’t take advantage of these benefits, of these resources, of these services, we’re in jeopardy of them just going away.” He encourages all veterans to take advantage of the benefits they are eligible for and entitled to receive, especially if they were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or the full ban on homosexuality.
Santiago also hosts town halls where service members and veterans can talk about their experiences in a safe space without question or comment. Veterans from all over have attended the town halls, including sailors from USS Constitution. “It’s very important to hear these experiences. Not just for ourselves, but for everybody to hear them.” Santiago says. “It’s important for everybody to know that we’ve always been here. We’ve always served. Did we serve in silence? Yes. But we still served. We still serve with that honor, courage, and commitment, and sacrificed a lot.”
In June 2020, Santiago was invited back to USS Constitution by Commander John Benda to speak to the crew in celebration of Pride Month. It’s a moment he describes as “one of the most emotional things that happened to me.” Standing in front of the crew on Constitution’s spar deck, the first question he posed was, “How many people, if you’re comfortable, in here, right now, are part of the LGBTQ community?” Several crew members raised their hands. “That moment, seeing those hands raised, is something I couldn’t do 20 years earlier. It was very impactful for me. It really brought me home. It came full circle. Yes, this is where we need to be at. Are we done yet? No, we’re not. But this is where we need to be at. Where you can raise your hand and say that you’re gay in front of your commanding officer on board USS Constitution. It doesn’t get any more special than that. It doesn’t get any more historic than that.”
1 U.S. Government Accountability Office. Defense Force Management: DOD’s Policy on Homosexuality. GAO/NSIAD-92-98. Washington, D.C., June 1992.
2 “H.R.2401 – 103rd Congress (1993-1994): National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994.” November 30, 1993.
3 Oral history interview with Robert Santiago, by the USS Constitution Museum, August 16, 2022. OH2022-15.
4 Lowrey, Nathan S. “Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: A Historical Perspective from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Joint History and Research Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, DC, 2021.
5 “H.R.2965 – 111th Congress (2009-2010): Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010.” December 22, 2010. Accessed via U.S. Government Publishing Office.
6 “Robert Santiago.” Veterans Services. City of Boston, 2023.
Manager of Curatorial Affairs, USS Constitution Museum
Kate Monea is the Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the USS Constitution Museum.