It’s Sept. 21, 2008, the day of Stewart Bornhoft’s second wedding. It’s a happy affair for the 61-year-old military retiree at San Diego’s landmark Marston House. He’s joined by family, friends and well-wishers, including those from the successful Army career that saw his rise to full bird colonel. His two children are present, and his son, who is best man, gives a heartfelt toast.
Bornhoft cherishes the moment, and so does his new husband, Stephen McNabb.
Yeah. That’s right.
We go back to June 1969, and cadet Stewart Bornhoft is on full-dress parade at West Point. He’s graduating to an Army commission and will soon volunteer for Vietnam and become a platoon leader in the combat engineers.
That same month, unnoticed on the plain of West Point, the Stonewall Riots happen a few miles away in New York City. It’s a rebellion by gays against being badgered by cops, but in a larger sense, it’s against societal repression. It’s a wildfire sprung from smoldering leaves.
Stonewall means nothing to Bornhoft at the time.
Bornhoft today is a trim man of 67 who has retained his military bearing. He speaks in the adjective-lite way of the engineer, using words with no flowery power. He says, “(Back then) I did not know I was gay. I would have laughed with embarrassment at the suggestion. I had only a vague idea of what it meant. I snickered about effeminate guys. ... The images that existed of homosexuals were that they were wimpy, limp-wristed sissies, flamboyant.”
At West Point, surrounded by hundreds of buff young men, he remembers “noticing” them in the shower, but didn’t think anything about it.
“I had just been commissioned an officer in the Army. I was a man’s man, not a sissy.”
That is Bornhoft speaking with hindsight. Of course, in 1969, he was a different person: personally more naive, but all soldier.
In Vietnam, things go well for Bornhoft. He’s shot at several times — and has the pleasure of being missed each time. He becomes a company commander on his second tour and qualifies as an airborne Ranger. At the end of his tour, he has earned two Bronze Stars and other honors.
Back in the states with “fruit salad” ribbons pinned on his chest, Bornhoft falls in love and marries his girlfriend.
“I liked women. I married one. I was (unknowingly) at least bisexual at the time. I don’t identify as bisexual right now, and I have no inclination toward women. But (at that time), the arousals were genuine.”
It is 1972. For the next two decades the couple move from post to post, raise their children and do the necessary Army social routines. Their lives, on the surface, could be a brochure for the model Army family. His career in the Corps of Engineers is successful because he’s very good at what he does.
And so the ’70s pass in middle-class quietude.
A decade after the Stonewall revolt, gays were solidifying their gains for social acceptance. Bornhoft is far removed from that but is not oblivious to the movement.
To Bornhoft, the ’80s are the decade when his inner self starts making noise in his mind, demanding to be released. He is still in denial but full of curiosity when he visits a gay bar on an out-of-town trip. Nothing comes of it except to drink some beer and play pool, but he likes the atmosphere. He will return.
Actually, denial is not the best word. Self-deception is a closer fit for his mindset. However, he is being driven toward a new awareness. He forms gay relationships and starts drinking heavily. Something is shaking up his head, and the pieces of his life are getting scattered like an abandoned puzzle.
The drinking removes his mind from the fact that he finds himself boxed in between his established, orderly life and the urgings he has kept bottled up.
However, the emergence of “gay pride” inches its way into Bornhoft’s consciousness, daring him to examine who he really is.
He intuitively knows he can’t go on with a double life but doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t want to lose his family or jeopardize his career, but he is unwilling to give up what he had discovered about himself. Love, shame, lust, loyalty, all these are doing battle in his head.
In 1990, he’s living in Omaha, Neb. He swears off drinking and starts attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The AA groups he is a regular at are largely for gays. He tells his wife those groups are where he is least likely to be recognized by military people.
He wants to come clean, for the charade to end, but how do you tell your wife of two decades, the mother of your two children, that you have discovered another self? That you are what many people at the time consider a sexual freak?
His marriage becomes empty of intimacy, and his wife obviously knows he’s pulling away emotionally. She takes the issue out of his hands.
In 1992, she comes upon some love letters that have been written to Bornhoft. She reads them, then writes her own letter in which she tells him she now knows he is gay and demands a divorce.
Blunt and cold, as he knows he deserves.
When marriages collide in divorce court, a common reason given is, “People change.” Though sometimes spoken with a dismissive shrug, it can be true. In Bornhoft’s case, he believes it is not only true, but unavoidable. He cannot change what has happened to him.
He feels he has become who he really is, but his wife’s feelings are different. She feels betrayed and harbors the bitterness of the undeserving victim. All Bornhoft can do is try to explain that he hasn’t meant to hurt her and wishes he could have avoided it. That’s little comfort to his wife.
Try as he might, there is no way he can expect her to understand that his “emergence” as a gay man is something he can’t deny or push out of his life, and that really, it has nothing to do with her.
His explanation doesn’t assuage her anger or his regret and guilt at having caused her pain. Looking back, he says he could take some consolation that he had never engaged in unsafe sex practices, and that two “great kids” and three grandchildren are there for him and his ex-wife to love.
In the end, tears are shed and eyes averted. Silences are long and painful. But nothing can be changed.
A year after the divorce, his ex-wife contacts him and says that the kids, not knowing the true cause of the breakup, are blaming her for driving the family apart. And unless he tells them he is gay, she will.
Sitting at the kitchen table — it always seems to be at the kitchen table — are his 15-year-daughter and 18-year-old son. They know nothing of the lightning bolt about to come their way from dad.
When he tells them he is gay, the girl takes it with a smile and a casual, “whatever.” His son, however, takes a deep breath and says, “Oh, boy!” He grabs his car keys and runs from the house.
The son would eventually reconcile and grow close to his dad, but for Bornhoft, sitting at that table, the silence is long and aching.
Life is strange, and it sure ain’t simple.
To this day, Bornhoft is bothered by the pain his wife had to endure. Why could he not have been up front with her? Well, remember he was a high-ranking officer in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” Army with a career they were all dependent upon. Well, that’s perhaps a rationale, but not an excuse, and he knows it.
Bornhoft subscribed to the West Point honor code. Don’t think he didn’t pay a conscience price. He accepts responsibility for the shattered family. He braces his shoulders and takes the hit.
He respects the decision his conduct forced his wife into making, and regrets she had to do so. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be married to you.’ I can understand that. What woman wants to be married to a gay man? She also said, ‘I’m not trying to ruin your military career,’ which I certainly was grateful for.”
Freshly single, Bornhoft transferred to Fort Sill, Okla., which is about as close to gay-friendly Hillcrest as is Polar Station, Antarctica. At that time, he was dealing with mostly civilian authorities and was able to keep his identity to himself. His liaisons were done long-distance by many weekend trips to places like Wichita, Kan. He had put all vestiges of bisexuality behind him.
Bornhoft retired in 1995 and moved to San Diego. He went to work administering government contracts on environmental projects, which he is still involved in.
As the years passed, he has witnessed society’s softening attitude toward gays and lesbians, but old antagonisms still exist. He has opinions as to why.
“I think it’s a distorted view of what they consider normal and what the Bible teaches,’” he says. “But they don’t do their homework. Jesus never said a word against it, and you can bet he was acquainted with gays.
“What has changed now is that gays who had been invisible are now visible. Some people thought they had never met a gay. But every adult has met scores of gays, and they discover they’re the people next door.”
In 2000, he enters into a domestic partnership with Stephen McNabb, a younger ex-Navy helicopter pilot. They marry eight years later and live in Bonita. Bornhoft is also involved in gay-rights activities.
He tells the story of the two of them invited to Kentucky to the 50th anniversary of McNabb’s parents. The only stipulation was they would present themselves as just friends, not a gay couple. McNabb indignantly rejected that condition. Bornhoft, however, said he could live with it.
Pain mellows as well as teaches.
Victor Hugo spoke about the power of “an idea whose time has come.” Perhaps that might include respecting the life of a gay man. But at least let it be a willingness to understand people as good and decent as yourself.
And maybe it will discourage the type of identity confusion that Bornhoft had to sort out, and the sadness and upheaval that it caused his family.
If mechanics were as complex as the human psyche, we’d still be puzzling over the wheel.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His webpage is firstname.lastname@example.org