Gaslight Reboot: my experience with sexual harassment as a member of the US Coast Guard
When Ingrid Bergman was manipulated and harassed by her husband Charles Boyer in the film Gaslight, American audiences viewed the film with curiosity and disgust. But in the process, the curtain of deception and deceit that can exist in interpersonal relations between men and women was effectually drawn away from the eyes of the public.
I am a United States Coast Guard veteran, and the reason I chose to serve isn’t entirely because I wanted to serve my country. I enlisted at 25 with a background in spotlight-celebrity type jobs.
At 20, I had worked in Jackson, Mississippi, as a radio personality for iHeartMedia, and I also wrote for an alternative newsweekly, the Jackson Free Press. In small markets like Jackson, jobs like that will bring you local fame because the public treats you with celebrity status. I loved the attention but I didn’t like the cocky attitude I had developed from all that attention. In my head, I would say, “How do I change this about me? I don’t like this cocky trait I’ve developed. I’m a turnoff to myself.”
Two years after working in Jackson, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and worked as news bureau chief for the former Metro Networks and wrote for an alternative newsweekly, Folio Weekly. At this point in my life, I had toned my cocky attitude down, but I still had cocky feelings and thoughts. I wasn’t any happier with myself. For a year-and-a-half, I contemplated getting out of my spotlight career because how was I going to lose the cocky feelings and thoughts that sometimes still arose because of what I did for a living? I needed a job that focused on helping others. I needed a job that didn’t shine the spotlight back on me. I became a 9-1-1 operator with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
That was the toughest job I’d ever had because all I wanted to do was jump out of my cubicle and beat the living daylights out of the perpetrators, murderers and thieves that our officers responded to. After about nine months of this job, I had to make my next career move. I knew that I couldn’t go back to radio or anything with a spotlight feel because I had done a good job of diminishing those cocky feelings and thoughts. I wanted to stay in the business of helping people. I was done with performing. It wasn’t who I was supposed to be because all I would be is a performer with a cocky attitude.
I enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and on July 14, 2009, arrived on a bus with 70-something other recruits in front of Sexton Hall at USCG Tracen Center Cape May in New Jersey. Men whose facial expressions and body language that reminded me of a pit bull’s stormed into the bus and yelled at us to get off the bus as quickly as possible. Our company was Alfa-182.
It’s common sense that basic training isn’t easy, but it makes every challenging moment worth it in those eight weeks when you are a family as we were. We were 70-something strangers from different parts of the United States and the shared connection we had as a whole was a blessing. We genuinely cared about each other and gave our hearts to each other. Our three company commanders were a great team and, underneath the yelling and scolding, they shared that connection. They believed in us, and they wanted to see us succeed. We didn’t turn our backs on each other in the toughest of tough times. We supported each other.
I had a moment of sadness the day before we graduated because I didn’t want us to graduate. I wanted to stay in basic training forever with Alfa-182 because of the closeness we shared. The love that I felt for my shipmates and for the Coast Guard caused me to think that this was the lifelong career for me. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. I had no inkling about the type of people I would soon encounter.
In September 2009, I reported to Coast Guard Station Yankeetown (CG STA Yankeetown) in Yankeetown, Florida. With the male herding mentality at this station, I might as well have shown up barefoot and pregnant with tape over my mouth. During my first two weeks, they were friendly towards me. At the time I thought there weren’t any ulterior motives behind those smiles and those friendly attitudes. However, one of the few female shipmates told me behind closed doors to watch my back because there had been females stationed there in the recent past that were sleeping with the male shipmates, so they probably expected that kind of sexual behavior from me. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Three weeks after I arrived at CG STA Yankeetown, one of my female shipmates from Alfa 182 arrived. I looked forward to us serving at the same station because she showed leadership qualities in basic training and had a grounded type of personality. We would also live together in government housing. I imagined we’d hang out together, study Coast Guard qualifications together and have each other’s back in case anything bad happened. Once again, I was wrong.
Williams arrived and the male shipmates transferred their attention to their new sexual target. This is when don’t ask, don’t tell was still in. What these shipmates didn’t know is that Williams was a lesbian in a fully committed relationship with a woman. Her girlfriend would drive to our apartment on Williams’ off days and they’d shack up in her bedroom the whole time. If anyone had the scoop it was me because I lived with her. But I wasn’t going to out her in the Coast Guard by tapping on their shoulders and saying, “You’re wasting your time.”
She was beautiful. She had an attractive body and didn’t have the stereotypical 2009 lesbian look. I really didn’t either because I have feminine features. I had short hair and dressed tomboyish when I wasn’t in Coast Guard uniform. But close-minded individuals that can’t see past their colleagues’ gender and lack of objectivity and compassion cannot be expected to respond in a professional and ethical manner.
What had begun as male shipmates who congenially and willingly answered my questions about material pertaining to mandatory Coast Guard qualifications that I studied turned into male shipmates who ignored my questions. In the same breath, they’d turn right to Williams and ask, “So, Williams, are you understanding things so far in the boat crew guide? Let’s sit over here for a second and go over some of these boat crew qualifications.”
It was a late afternoon as I sat on the smoke deck with a male shipmate who chain-smoked. I didn’t have anything to say to him or anybody. My upbeat morale had disappeared into a dark hole. I just sat there on a wooden bench and he sat there enjoying his cigarette. He inhaled a deep puff of smoke, slowly let it out and he looked at me and said, “Luckey, I don’t like the way they treat you. They have a bet going to see who can get inside of Williams’ pants first, and the running joke at the station is ‘Well, we don’t know what Luckey is so there’s no need in helping her with qualifications.’ That’s why they’ve started acting like this towards you. They’re trying to gain Williams’ trust so they can take advantage of her. That’s why they’re not helping you anymore.”
After he said that, I allowed every word he said to sink in. Because they suspected that I was a lesbian, they refused to help with my qualifications. Because of my perceived sexual orientation which meant that there would be no opportunity to sleep with me, they refused to help me with my qualifications. Was this really happening? How were they allowed entry into the United States Coast Guard: a military branch that has a core mission to save lives. I thought that’s what I was going to be a part of, an organization that cared about people. How was I going to handle this treatment? How was I going to put a stop to it? I’d already started documenting on paper the behavior and treatment towards myself and other females that I had witnessed from them. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that documentation, but I did know that I was going to keep documenting everything.
I thought Williams would want to fight back with me as we figured out how to put these shipmates in their place. I told her about the bet they had going. She looked at me like I was crazy. She didn’t believe me. Of course she didn’t believe me because the game of deception and machinations they’d orchestrated was falling in their favor because they’d already begun to gain her trust. I thought she’d at least be upset by their unethical behavior towards me, towards her, but she wasn’t. She started to avoid me. As hurtful and upsetting as this was, I wasn’t going to back down. I was still going to be loyal to her and protect her in whatever way I could. I was going to stand up and see that something was done about all of this. I had no idea where to begin. I just kept documenting everything.
I had no one to turn to. I didn’t have a family to go home to for comfort at the end of a hostile, mentally abusive shift. I didn’t have a significant other to show me love or tell me that I mattered in this life. All I had to go home to was a shipmate who I once considered family who did whatever she could to not cross paths with me in our shared apartment. Her bedroom door was always closed. A shipmate who hid behind her closed door with her significant other who helped her ignore the problems that happened at CG STA Yankeetown. I couldn’t understand it. How could she turn her cheek the other way and not speak up with me? The more voices the better. Didn’t she understand the power of that? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I played pretend about all this. What about the future generations of Coasties? If these individuals were allowed to renew their contracts and transfer to a new duty station, then their unethical behavior could cause a Coastie to crumble and possibly drive them to suicide or to have a nervous breakdown. I had to protect them from these vultures. No chance in hell they would continue to get away with this on my watch.