Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers

Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

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Brett Jones: First Openly Gay Navy SEAL slams Trump’s bigotry

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Brett Jones served as a Navy SEAL during ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’. He was forcefully outed, and was subjected to an interrogation and investigation about his sexuality. He fought back, and was given the opportunity to continue to serve as a SEAL, but he left in fear of further discrimination.

Brett continued to serve in the CIA, but was the victim of vicious harassment. He’s spent the last three years as a police officer in Alabama, where he lives with his husband and son.

In Pride: The Story of the First Openly Gay Navy SEAL, Brett tells his life story, from being kicked out of his house for being gay, to the intense Navy SEAL training, to almost being ousted from the SEALs.


Ken Harbaugh:

My guest today is Brett Jones, who was the first openly gay Navy SEAL. He served during “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”, and left the SEAL teams after being outed. He continued to serve in the CIA, but was the victim of vicious harassment there. Brett's now married, living in Alabama with his husband and their son. Brett, it is such an honor to speak with you. Welcome to Burn the Boats.

Brett Jones:

Thank you. I appreciate it. I'm glad to be here.

Ken Harbaugh:

Your book came out a few years ago, but I feel like your story has such relevance today in this political era where we're experiencing this weird kind of hypermasculinity that's become a defining feature of the right. Now, you've been the victim, even as one of our nation's elite warriors, of these twisted notions of masculinity. And even though you rose above it, with everything you've seen in the years since, especially living in Alabama, where I've lived as well, do you think things are getting better or worse?

Brett Jones:

I think if you take history as sort of an example, I'd say that, yeah, I do believe that things are getting better. I also believe that it's one of those mountains that's impossible to reach the top, but is very important that you keep climbing. If you look at civil rights or any other group of people that have been marginalized in history, the true summit of it is just not giving up that climb. I feel that the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was awesome, and being able to be married, it was awesome. It was particularly a wonderful day for me and, well, a wonderful event that happened for me and my family. But it's not the end, right? There's still always work to do. The same with civil rights. You can't give up on it, or we're not at the top of the mountain where everyone is treated equally and harmoniously and all that. You still have to keep challenging yourself as a person and as a community and as a state, as a nation.

Ken Harbaugh:

It is funny how progress happens, though. At times it seems like, well, we can't even see the top of that mountain, and then seemingly overnight, granted, with a ton of work by committed advocates and a ton of sacrifice by a lot of people, but what seems like overnight, there's a mental shift, and something that would've seemed unthinkable to my parents' generation, legalized gay marriage, my kids just take for granted. How do you think about that and the way things seem to shift all at once after so much effort?

Brett Jones:

I got to say, I remember there were times in my life, the majority of my life, where I never thought in my lifetime that I would be able to be married to a guy that I love. I just didn't. I wouldn't be able to have a family. I wouldn't. It would have to be very cloaked and secretive, whatever. And I remember the momentum building up to that Supreme Court ruling, and there's this part of you that is so afraid of what might not happen after being... It's like being told that, "You just won the lottery, but..." And so you're just hoping and praying that that ruling comes back, and yeah.

I just remember what a feeling that was. And crazy. I had deployed a few months before, so basically, my deployment schedule was, I would deploy for two or three months and then come back for two or three months, deploy for two or three months, come back for two. And my husband and I at the time, I was doing stuff that was really, really dangerous, and we thought that if I got killed, which was a pretty good... I mean, let's just be honest here. The odds aren't in my favor there. But we were worried that the insurance wouldn't cover my family. And we had this, I think it was like $250,000 life insurance policy through the... It's your basic thing that the military or the agency offered. And I was terrified that they wouldn't get it because we weren't married, even though everywhere else, legally we were together, just not married. And I remember it was like three days before I left, me and him drove up to Illinois to get married in this little town called... I want to say it's Evansville, Illinois. So it was right on the border there, so we just crossed into the border, went straight to magistrate, and got married, so that if something did happen to me, then there was no issues with the... And then come to find out, just a few months later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of it, and good Lord, what an amazing feeling that was.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that was the Obergefell decision, and what's striking to me hearing your story is that we had Jim Obergefell on the show a while back.

Brett Jones:

Oh, really?

Ken Harbaugh:

We did.

Brett Jones:

I met him at a gala once

Ken Harbaugh:

No kidding?

Brett Jones:

Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

That's awesome. The prompt, and it's heartbreaking just talking about it, the forcing issue for that case was the fact that he married his husband out of state, out of Ohio, because his husband was terminally ill and they wanted to sanctify their relationship in the eyes of the law. And when they landed back in Ohio, they realized that Ohio didn't care. Ohio didn't care that their marriage was sanctified in another state, but it didn't matter in Ohio. And Jim was terrified that... Well, and this actually happened. He wasn't listed on the death certificate. And his husband said, "Fight this. Fight this." And that resulted in Obergefell making it before the Supreme Court and making legalized gay marriage the law of the land, not just a state by state thing. But in your case, I mean, that was a very real possibility as well. You were doing Navy SEAL missions…

Brett Jones:

Well, I was with the CIA at the time, but yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Oh, you were with the CIA at the time. Probably even more dangerous if there was one thing that could be more dangerous than being a Navy SEAL. What's also interesting about your perspective on all this is that the tropes are pretty conservative. I mean, you're a Navy SEAL. You're living in Alabama. If someone had to just write the book cover, it would look pretty conservative, right?

Brett Jones:

Yeah. I don't know how all this happened, actually. Well, I mean, I fell in love with a guy that lives in Alabama, and his family, and yeah. That's how it happened. And as far as conservative and liberal, especially the older I get, I just really try to focus on people and not these group... Because it's real easy to say, "Oh, the right, they're trying to oppress us, and the left is..." Whatever. I try to sort of separate that and focus really on people. And if somebody has a problem with me being in a relationship, married and with a family and all that, I'd give it that look of, well, they're a person, and so that's basically how I try to look at it. And a lot of people don't understand, and that's okay. I'm not out here to try and make everyone understand something. All I can do is live my best life, and that's about the most I can do, really.

Ken Harbaugh:

I love that.

Brett Jones:

And... Yeah, sorry.

Ken Harbaugh:

No, no, no. I was going to say, I love that focus on people. And it reminds me of a very old YouTube video of yours that we dug up where you're talking about your feelings after Obergefell, and you made some comment about the case of the bakery that refused to serve a gay couple. And there's this quote in particular, which I don't know. If I can get it on a T-shirt, I will. You said, "I wondered if a gay couple came to Jesus and asked him to make them a chair for their wedding, you know what Jesus would do? My guess is that not only would he have made them one chair, he probably would've made them two, and then he would've bedazzled it and put streamers all over it and gold and frankincense and myrrh and whatever-"

Brett Jones:

Yeah, I remember that. No, I do remember that.

Ken Harbaugh:

"... to show it as a testament of his love for them regardless."

Brett Jones:

Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. But this is a political show, so I'm going to hold you to the fire a little bit. You have to acknowledge that most of that hate, that prejudice, is coming from the right, and they want make it law.

Brett Jones:

Yeah. I do recognize that. And I also recognize that there are people who are working hard on both sides to keep this as an equal of a land as possible. And here's the thing. It's real easy to stereotype a group of people. Our brains work that way, and it's easier to categorize things and file them away as, "Oh, that's gay," or, "Oh, that's far right," or, "Oh, that's far left," or whatever. It's just very easy to do that. And when we do that, we lose sight of people.

A real good example of this is the Roy Moore thing that happened here in my home state of Alabama. And as frustrating and as angry as I would be about what seemed and felt like just hate towards people like me and my family, and him being in such a prestigious position, it was a very frustrating thing. And it would be very easy for me to say awful things about this man given my experiences in my life. But here's the thing. What compassion would that be? He's still a human being. I don't know his whole story. I don't know his whole life. I don't know. I just know what I'm seeing and what's happening. And I tried during that time to really focus on just being me, being me and still caring about people regardless of what they might believe.

Ken Harbaugh:

That is separate from electing those people to powerful positions, though, right? We can have…

Brett Jones:

Oh, I didn't vote for him.

Ken Harbaugh:

What does it say, though, that 47% of Alabamians, and I know this number because I spent my formative years in Alabama, and I couldn't believe what was happening. Actually, I could believe what was happening, and that's why I'm putting the question to you. What does it say about deep red parts of this country that nearly a majority will support someone with a record like Roy Moore's?

Brett Jones:

So you have to really look at the history of Alabama to really understand the people. My husband, he's a Civil War enthusiast, and so he's really helped me understand. Because I came here. When I first came here, it was a culture shock to me. And I think one of the best lessons that I've learned living in this state is that people may have beliefs, and regardless of where these beliefs come from, whether it was something that has been generationally taught over the years, or if they have these prejudices or biases, or whatever it is that you may not agree with, at the end of the day, they're still people, and they still have the power to influence other people. And the only way that I know how to combat that is to try and be the best version of myself that I can be. And it all goes back to that compassion. And I'll be honest with you. The people of Alabama, for the most part, have been absolutely 100% amazing to me and my husband. And some of them don't agree with the Supreme Court's ruling or our relationship. And I can't control that. I can't change somebody else's thought, and I just focus on the things that I can control, and it has always seemed to suit me pretty well. And that's how I react to people doing things that I might not agree with.

Ken Harbaugh:

But you've talked about the difference between living in a relatively big city by Alabama standards, Huntsville, with tons of academic institutions and high-tech industry, and living in rural Alabama. You're in an island right now, and again…

Brett Jones:

Well, yeah, no. You're absolutely right. I'm in this little blue dot floating in the middle of a sea of red. But here's the thing. I actually live in a town just outside of Huntsville, a small town. And our son, we went to baseball games growing up, and we got that where we had to sit by ourselves. It was really bad there, until you just realize that I can only do what I can do. Yeah, it obviously makes me angry when your son comes back or is like, "Why are none of the other parents sitting near these two like they can catch it or something?"

I mean, there's these difficult talks that you have to have, and there's these difficult things that you have to do that shouldn't be that way. I feel that I should be able to kiss my husband whenever I want to. I should be able to hold his hand if I want to and not make other people uncomfortable. But that's not the world I live in. That's not the world that I'm here. And the only way that I know truly how to not get very angry and frustrated is to realize that I can't control other people.

I try to be a good example. I can try to make positive videos. I can try to write things that will help people understand. Because that's really what it all boils down to, is people just don't understand. I don't know what it's like to be transgender. I don't. I have no idea what that's like. But people who I have respected have tried to help me understand that and make it to where I can relate to that, and it has opened my eyes. Even Christianity. I grew up in a very religious environment that really felt like it was used as a weapon against me for years and years. And I had this resentment against people that did that, that were that religious, and I had to come to this place where I could be like, "Look, I can't control that." I have to let that go and know that otherwise, I'm just going to build up resentment and hate, and I'm going to have to carry that around with me, and I don't want to be carrying other people's shit. And yeah. And so yeah, letting go of that. And then once I was able to do that, I realized that I could have my own relationship with a god of my understanding, and that really opened my eyes to a lot of that.

And again, I sound like a broken record, but just going back to the compassion part, I know... Because I lived it. I was in an environment where you grew up and you had to be a certain way, and those things that are instilled in you at a very young age are very difficult to break away from. And growing up in a very religious environment as a gay person, man, it's hard. It's really difficult. And then as you start to come into your own, you feel like you're hurting this God that your parents had told you about and that you're hurting them. And then all of a sudden, the self-loathing comes in, and I can't change this, and I can't change the way I think, and it's just this very vicious cycle.

And I understand how easy it is to try to not understand another person. It's easy to just categorize it as, "Oh, that's a trans person. I don't care about them. File it away in that thing. And I can teach my kids that because it's really easy. It's just that. Trans people, bad. Gay people, bad," or whatever. And the more difficult thing would be to, "Let me try and understand this. Let me try and understand why this person is this way. Let me try and understand what their life must be like."

Same with mental illness, man. That is so much stigma. As a cop, I see it all the time. There's so much stigma around it. And I'm not comparing the two, but I'm just saying, it's a category of people that people just crazy. They label it crazy and they file it away. And it's like, "No, actually, if you really take the time to try and understand what's going on, it's not what you think." And when I come across people that resent me just because of me being gay or whatever, my first thought is like, "Oh, man." I feel bad for them because I feel like maybe they weren't given the opportunities or they weren't taught to try to understand other people. And that's where, I guess, I lie at it.

Ken Harbaugh:

It feels like there's a resurgence of that of late because it has become such an effective political tool on the right. You brought up the attacks on transgender people. The idea that if we can rally our base by othering people we don't understand, we can win elections. In the heart of Alabama, surely you're seeing that around you.

Brett Jones:

Well, again, man, if you go and look at history, some of Alabama's governors, they were elected... Well, one in particular was elected because he wasn't afraid to drop the N word, and that was a rallying point around that. I think a lot of it is education, for sure. Being able to grow up in an environment where you can learn about things in a freer space is obviously helpful. I think at the end of the day, if you think about anything, whether it's political or just personal relationships or whatever, if you're hurting somebody, if your beliefs are actively hurting somebody, and it's not in a way to help them grow or become a better person, but really hurting them, then you're fucked up, man. You're hurting somebody, and that's not a way to live your life.

Ken Harbaugh:

I feel like that, the hurting of people, has become a part of our politics lately in a way that it wasn't before. Cruelty seems to be the point when former President Trump mocks a disabled person or talks about roughing suspects up putting them into police cars. Those lines get the loudest applause at his rallies. Something seems to have gone off the rails in a party that celebrates the cruelty for cruelty's sake. How do you react?

Brett Jones:

Well, obviously I don't like that, right? It's no secret. I didn't vote for Trump. And he is certainly not a statesman, and I think a poor example of how we should treat other people, for sure. I'm not going to get into the politics of what he believes and whatnot. But here's the thing, man, is people are people. And it's really, really fucking easy to take people and just... Our brains, I feel like, are probably triggered more towards that negative. It's really easy to dislike somebody. It's really easy to hate somebody. It requires no work. And it weighs on you, and then it's a cancer, it grows, and then it morphs into other things. It's really hard to understand and try to relate and show compassion to people. That's fucking work. That's really fucking hard work. And when I see people like that, I'm like, "I don't think they're ready for that kind of work yet."

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. There's this great Brene Brown quote. She says, "It's hard to hate up close." And I have to believe that one of the defining features of those islands of blue and seas of red, as you describe Huntsville, is the fact that there is more diversity. There is more education. You're surrounded by people who challenge your preconceptions. Does that hold?

Brett Jones:

Yeah. Well, I mean, yeah, absolutely. I feel like diversity is one of those things that just adds fucking color to the world. Because I grew up in an environment where beliefs were supposed to be the same, and those beliefs and those ideals and those ideas became very boring to me, and it just felt stale. And as I got older and was introduced to different types of people and different views and religions, and even though I might not agree with some of them, it brought color into my life. And I believe that there's a place and a conversation here for everyone. And yeah. I didn't vote for Trump.

Ken Harbaugh:

What do you make of his... I mean, it's almost like he's impersonating Mussolini or the strongmen of eras past in the way he carries himself, in the way he bullies those who stand up to him. And I'm asking you as a Navy SEAL. We don't get Navy SEALs on this show all the time, but you have to have a pretty insightful perspective on toxic masculinity, having been at the tip of the spear of America's national defense.

Brett Jones:

Yeah. I think you said it right there. I watched the whole... Like every American did, and I was like, "Wow, man, this guy is the definition of a bully." And I think the thing that fuels a bully is when it works, when you do something and you use shame or insults, or whatever the case is, as a tool to get what you want, and then it works. It's like, well, damn. That just adds to that ego that bullies live off of. It was frustrating, for sure, for me to watch. And obviously, I didn't vote for Hillary Clinton either. I was a Johnson guy at the time. Right? Gary Johnson was the liberal or libertarian that ran for it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, the bullying and these weird demonstrations of virility, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat would call them, didn't just work for Trump. They infected the entire Republican Party. I mean, you have people like Josh Hawley, who I don't think anyone should take manliness lessons from. He's the guy who fist-pumped the insurrectionists on January 6th. He's writing a book about how to be a real man. I mean, this has become a trope on the right. How does something like this happen, and how do those of us who see through it call it out?

Brett Jones:

Well, I think just like that, right? You do obviously see through it, and you are calling it out, and that's what it is. Yeah, it's very easy to fall into something, it's very easy to get angry at something that you don't understand. That's human nature. Like, "Oh, I don't understand that person over there because they mow their yard on Tuesdays instead of the weekends. Who the fuck does that? What is that? I don't understand that. They're a shitty neighbor." It's just easy to categorize things you don't understand into a I don't like category. And then when you find other people that really put that on a billboard, it's like, "Oh, man, look, this person doesn't like that guy over there either because he mows his yard on Tuesdays. Fuck, let's hang out more." or whatever. It grows.

Ken Harbaugh:

Pretty soon, you get the Oath Keepers, right?

Brett Jones:

Yeah. And then you got the lynch mob out there hanging the guy up on the side of the street because he mowed his yard on a Tuesday.

Ken Harbaugh:

So many of our fellow vets, and you work with a lot of law enforcement, this applies to them as well, get drawn into this. What is happening there? Why is there such an attraction for our buddies who served? Why are so many in the law enforcement community drawn to these kinds of movements as well? I mean, January 6th jumps to the top of my mind as an example of a movement that had way too many law enforcement officers, way too many vets at the vanguard, and it just scares the heck out of me.

Brett Jones:

Well, I'll be honest, Ken. I don't think it's fair to categorize all of veterans and police officers into a small group of people that went and did something awful.

Ken Harbaugh:

Fair enough. Yeah. But even one is too many, and vets and LEO were disproportionately represented at the Capitol that day.

Brett Jones:

Yeah. But there were also some that really stood out too, that helped keep those people out and keep our elected officials safe.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yes. For sure.

Brett Jones:

I don't honestly feel that it's a disproportionate amount. I'm a police officer here in Alabama, and I can tell you that the people that I've worked... And I've worked with different municipalities, counties, you name it. I've worked with all different types of police officers from all over the state. And my overall impression of them is, wow, these people really, really care about their communities and their laws and helping people.

There's been a big shift in law enforcement in general that I've seen, where you had this ultra masculine sort of, "Oh, it's this way or the highway," or whatever, to a very much more, "Focus on the people, focus on the situation, and how can I actually really help this situation and not escalate or whatever." And those officers have been... I mean, the most impressionable people, or the most that I've been impressed by have been police officers here in the State of Alabama that don't see race, that don't see political views, or whatever. They go into these situations with an open mind and an open heart and try to help and deescalate situations.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, we had a sheriff from Oakland on the show who talked about the importance of that, the importance of empathy in policing. And unfortunately, that's not what the body cams catch enough of. I think what we see far too much of is the old school approach, the my way or the highway approach, and that does incredible damage to the profession.

Brett Jones:

So I see a lot of these body cams too, and my very first thing when I look at a body cam video is, one, am I seeing the whole thing? Am I seeing the whole story? Because that's important. A whole story is important, and not just a 20-second clip from a whole story. And then two is, there are bad apples. In any profession, there's always going to be people that aren't at their best in a day or are at their worst, for sure. Yeah. And those people need to be handled and dealt with accordingly. There was another thing I wanted to talk about with the body cams.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I think, at least in my world, we see the worst of the worst.

Brett Jones:

So here's the thing with that, right? You're just getting the worst of the worst. There's so many times, I can't tell you, with my department alone, where someone has made a complaint like, "Oh, this officer did this and this and this," and then they pull up the body cam and it's like, "Oh, wow. No, that was not what happened, and this is what happened." And there's a lot of really amazing and awesome and beautiful things that these police officers are doing on a daily basis that you don't see because their policy isn't to post a video about it. And even if you did, how many people are going to watch a cop doing his job? Nobody cares about that. They only care about that when it's that they need them to help them in their moment. But there are those ones that make everyone else look bad, for sure, and it's a battle that we have to fight.

Ken Harbaugh:

You've given me hope, Brett, and I know you do a lot of teaching in that world. How do your colleagues feel about the fact that you're a gay ex-Navy SEAL? I mean, 20 years ago you were forced out of the Navy for being who you are. How do your buddies and neighbors feel about that now?

Brett Jones:

So honestly, in my law enforcement career here, which isn't very long... I've only been a cop for three years here, and now I'm just part-time. But I've had nothing but the most positive experiences. My police department is this very small town, and if you were to paint a stereotypical Alabama town, that would be it. And those people have been absolutely wonderful. In fact, we're going to be moving out there, we love those people so much. And yeah. It has been nothing but a positive learning experience for me, and the people that I have worked with have been absolutely nothing but great. So I'm new, right? Still relatively new, and these people take time out of what they're doing to help me to become a better police officer and to help me understand things that I don't understand. We'll go on calls sometimes where they'll be somebody with a mental illness, and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, this is new. How do I handle this person and this and that?" And watching the way that these people deal with them in an empathetic way is just... And it helps build the community. You see the community starts to rally around their officers when the officers are actively out there serving the community, and it's just such a beautiful thing to be a part of and to do. And that has absolutely everything to do with other people, the other police officers that have mentored me and continue to mentor me.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Brett, this has been incredibly enlightening. Thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Brett Jones:

Yeah, thanks, Ken.


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