Navy's first openly gay SEAL builds his life anew

After becoming the first openly gay Navy SEAL, Brett Jones lost his family and his career. So he started over

For years, Brett Jones lived a double life. He was a Navy SEAL, a muscular M-60 gunner trained to kill and survive in enemy territory. He was also gay.

He held his secret close, so close that his SEAL teammates — his closest friends — never suspected. Jones was careful to introduce his male lover, a Navy sailor, as his roommate. He persuaded an attractive friend to pose as his girlfriend whenever the SEALs threw parties.

But one day in 2002, Jones accidentally outed himself. He left an "I love you'' phone message for his lover — a stupid mistake, he realized the instant he hung up.

A sailor heard it and turned him in. The Navy launched an investigation designed to dishonorably discharge him.

That mistake led Jones here, to the deeply conservative Bible Belt country of north Alabama, to a brick ranch home on Drury Lane he shares with his husband, Jason White, a burly former police detective and self-professed country boy raised in northern Alabama. The two men are parents to Ethan, a precocious 13-year-old known in the flat, clay and pine country as the only kid in school with two gay dads.

The first openly gay SEAL has built a new life here at age 41 with a family that has replaced the two families he lost — the one that raised him and the one he built with fellow SEALs. Both his parents and the Navy banished him because he's gay.

On this steamy night, the two gay parents and their straight son are sweating and shoving as they fight to win a roughhouse driveway basketball game called Cheater Ball. That's followed by shooting practice at a dirt berm in the backyard — a .357 pistol for Ethan, a 12-gauge shotgun for Jones and a Colt M4 carbine for White.

And then Ethan launches a home experiment, constructing a camp stove from a beer can and rubbing alcohol. Flames erupt from the contraption as it boils a pot of water on the kitchen counter.

The three of them horse around, joking and teasing like teenagers. They are close, and necessarily so, since a gay marriage — not to mention gay parenting — is viewed with deep suspicion and outright hostility in perhaps the most anti-gay state in the country.

When Jones and White attend Ethan's baseball games, they say, coaches and other parents barely speak to them. There are loud whispers and hard stares. No one will sit with them.

"I just want to tell them: 'It's not contagious, man. You're not going to catch it,'" Jones says, drawing cackles from White and Ethan.

The parents of Ethan's friends refuse to allow them to spend the night in the house Jones and White built together in little Toney, population 13,000. But the friends are allowed to stay over with Ethan when he's at the home of his mother, White's ex-wife.

School is worse, the family says. It's a rural county school, almost entirely white and deeply conservative. In science class one day, White says, a teacher stressed that marriage was strictly between a man and a woman. Teachers and students pass Bible verses to Ethan.

"They're telling him we're sinners and need help,'' White says. "I tell Ethan: 'Try not to look at them as being hateful. They care about your soul, but they just don't know any better.'"

Jones is accustomed to rejection. When he was in high school, his mother, a devout Christian, overheard his phone conversation with a gay friend.

The next day, Jones says, his parents confronted him. His father, an Air Force pilot, was wearing his blue dress uniform. He was livid. He asked his son, "Brett, are you a homosexual?"

Jones, caught off-guard, denied it at first. But they knew.

"My mom told me homosexuals go straight to hell," Jones says. "My dad said he wasn't going to have me infecting our family with that disease."

They kicked him out. He spent the night in a cheap motel, contemplating suicide. Not long after that, he joined the Navy, serving for 10 years.

It took Jones two tries to pass the Navy's punishing physical, psychological and emotional tests to qualify as a SEAL, a unit so elite that at least three-quarters of applicants wash out. He had served for six years and two deployments on demanding, secretive missions when his homosexuality was discovered.

It was the "don't ask, don't tell" era. Jones, a quarter master 2nd class, lost his security clearance. He was interrogated by a military lawyer who demanded he confess to being gay. He was forbidden to associate with his SEAL teammates unless he was escorted by a Navy master of arms.

His closest SEAL buddies supported him. But other SEALs ostracized him. They gossiped about him, ridiculing gays and saying a homosexual SEAL would destroy unit cohesion.

The Navy dropped its investigation after Jones enlisted a national group that advocates for gays in the military, and after members of Congress intervened. But he knew his SEAL career had been irrevocably destroyed, and he decided not to reenlist. He quietly left the Navy in 2003.

For years afterward, Jones kept quiet. Then he fell in love with White, who had come out to fellow cops at age 25 in nearby Athens, Ala. White proposed on Christmas morning in 2011, presenting Jones with a ring he and Ethan had picked out. Last December, they drove to Indiana to be married by a court clerk.

White, 37, had lived his own secret, tormented life growing up in Athens, where gays were ridiculed and demonized. His father cracked jokes about homos and fags.

The day White decided to come out, he says, "I told my dad and he stood up and I was bracing for a punch. Instead, he gave me a hug." His father apologized for all his gay slurs over the years.

White and his brother, Matt, helped convince Jones to self-publish a memoir, "Pride: The Story of the First Openly Gay Navy SEAL," released in October.

Writing the book helped heal the pain of scorn and rejection, but Jones has neither forgotten nor forgiven the Navy. "They treated me like a criminal," he says. "I was humiliated."

He misses his life in the SEALs. "I loved it. I thrived in it. It was my whole life. The bonds I made with those guys was the family I had always wanted," he says. "I hated lying to them."

Both White and Jones embrace the holy pursuits of Southern males. They have a safe full of guns and a weight room in the garage. They take Ethan shooting, fishing, hiking and camping. Ethan is taking flying lessons. He wants to be a pilot and an industrial engineer. He says he loves both his dads — he calls White "Dad" and Jones "Brett."

Jones and White want to sell the house and move Ethan to a public school in nearby Huntsville, which they call "a progressive island" in a state so hostile to gay marriage that its chief Supreme Court justice ordered counties to disobey a federal court order in February permitting gay marriage.

The family feels comfortable in Huntsville, home to scientists and engineers from across the country who work in defense and aerospace. Dads and son attend a Unitarian-Universalist church there and say they have been warmly welcomed. Jones and White own a private security service in the city.

Ethan is convinced he and his dads will be accepted at the Huntsville school. "I'm counting the days," he says.

Not everyone in rural Madison County is hostile. Some of the neighbors have been friendly and supportive. "We have the only tornado shelter on the street," White cracks.

Still, they don't expect a gay pride parade in Toney anytime soon. "Of course, every day I take a drive is a gay pride parade,'' White says.

The clients of their security company don't particularly care that it's owned and managed by two gay men, White says. The two are a former SEAL and former cop, after all, and Jones served for years as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq after leaving the Navy.

Today, Jones is active in the Trevor Project, which operates 24-hour suicide hotlines for troubled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. He also volunteers with the American Military Partner Assn., which advocates for LGBT service members. He gets several messages a week from young gays, some in the military, who are battling depression and discrimination.

A young, gay military officer recently wrote him from Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal. He thanked Jones for "being someone I can identify with and aspire to be like."

Jones says he has finally reconciled with his mother, though he and his father are not close and only talk by phone a few times a year.

"I love her and she loves me, but we just agree to disagree," he says of his mother. They never discuss Christianity or "the gay thing," Jones says.

Cathy Jones, who lives in Austin, Texas, says she loves and admires her son for his honesty and courage.

"I'm a very strong Christian, so it was a very hard adjustment for me," she says. "I had to come to a place where I could love him and still not agree with him. Now we each accept the other one's choices in life. I'm all right with the way he is."

She laughs and recalls Brett's reckless boyhood. "I was afraid he'd end up in the penitentiary or the graveyard," she says. "He was a little stinkpot — impulsive, a real daredevil.

"That's why he did so well in the SEALs," she adds.

Cathy Jones says she loves Ethan and considers him her grandson. She calls White, her son-in-law, "a wonderful person."

Jones closed his book with an open letter to Ethan: "No matter what the state of Alabama or anyone else says, we are and always will be a family.... You and your dad make being a father and a husband the most remarkable and unexpected accomplishment of my life."

On Drury Lane, dinner is almost ready. Jones is coating chicken with chipotle sauce. White is chopping broccoli.

Ethan tries another experiment: making a light bulb from a glass, wire, eight batteries, duct tape and lead filament.

Ethan tapes the batteries to the wire and hooks it to the filament with alligator clips. Nothing happens. His two dads tease him mercilessly.

But moments later, the filament is glowing bright red, lighting up the glass.

Jones wraps his son in a bear hug. "I never doubted you," he tells him.

Twitter: @davidzucchino

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