Gay Denver college student charts course to become military chaplain
December 19, 2011 | 11:49 am
(Updated: February 22, 2013 | 6:24 pm)
When Chris Daugherty discovered his calling, it seemed he’d need miracles on his side. He never let that stop him.
Speaking as a civilian, the 28-year-old served in both the Air Force and the Army. He stopped to listen to an Oct. 11 National Coming Out Day event on the Auraria campus where we first heard of his goal to become a military chaplain.
Fellow members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Denver, where Daugherty attends, were at the event and pointed Daugherty out, insisting he tell his story.
Daugherty seemed shy amidst the positive attention. Soft-spoken and modest with short-cropped hair, a polite Southern accent and manner – not to mention his large, thick-rimmed glasses – Daugherty was reminiscent of a simpler, friendlier era.
But palpable excitement built in his voice, then and every time since, when he described his Southern Baptist upbringing in Oklahoma, his journey out of the closet, and most importantly his desire to be a chaplain.
Stories would tumble out.
“I always wanted to be a minister,” said Daugherty, recounting his earliest memories. After he enlisted in the Air Force in 2002 as a high school senior, he decided the military would be the place to do it, and began training in 2004 to be a chaplain’s assistant.
But the military and the church have been difficult institutions for lesbians and gays.
“It’s not going to work in the church, it’s not going to work in the military,” Daugherty said of the once ominous-seeming obstacles – yet fully supportive of the military and his church, Daugherty was determined.
Daugherty was closeted when a Southern Baptist minister took to him and recommended him for a job as an assistant to a group of military chaplains.
“The moment I said I was Baptist, he kinda said ‘come on over,’” Daugherty joked about the interview.
But Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was still banning openly gay servicemembers, and Baptists are famously conservative on LGBT issues.
Zeke Stokes is communications director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national organization that has defended lesbian and gay troops and was on the forefront of the effort to repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“The military forbade the open service of gay and lesbian chaplains under DADT,” Stokes said. “So clergy sponsored by denominations that may have allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly would not have been able to be out before DADT was repealed.”
In that environment, Daugherty said he considered a celibate life.
“I thought to myself, I’ll turn the switch off. I would sacrifice relationships for the good of the world – I can love a girl; I just don’t wanna have sex. I’ll just stop thinking about guys.”
But Daugherty didn’t want to put a woman through such a marriage – and a Baptist minister is expected to have a wife. There were offers to help him find the right girl.
“I thought, ‘We have a problem, Houston,” Daugherty said with characteristic humor.
At one point Daugherty considered converting to Catholicism; Catholic priests don’t marry so no one would question why he’s single.
Daugherty finished his term in the Air Force and re-enlisted in the Army, and soon wouldn’t have to worry how the church would perceive his relationship status.
Daugherty visited Jewish synagogues exploring how to learn Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, and was inspired by their use of a liturgical calendar in worship. He sought out Christian churches that also preach liturgies throughout the year.
So it was in the tiny St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Salado, Texas, a 30-minute drive from Fort Hood, that Daugherty “fell in love” with Episcopal worship.
St. Joseph’s was an old-style building, with lanterns on the wall.
“You felt like you were in a medieval cathedral,” Daugherty said. “The preaching was conservative, but welcoming.”
St. Joseph’s had both liberal and conservative congregants, but Daugherty was already committed when he learned many local Episcopal communities bless same-sex unions and ordain lesbian and gay ministers.
“I picked the Episcopal church because my theological path took me there, and luckily it was a more gay-friendly church,” Daugherty said.
But it was more than luck: historic change soon kicked his door to the chaplaincy open. This summer, nine years after Daugherty first enlisted, Congress ended the ban on out lesbian and gay servicemembers.
“Chris is the first case I’ve heard of in which someone is pursuing the chaplaincy and plans to serve openly,” Stokes said. “There certainly may be others, and that’s to be expected. Some military chaplains will come out, just as some ministers and rectors elect to serve their congregations openly.”
Stokes said he expects the military to be supportive.
“We would expect it to be welcoming for gay and lesbian chaplains, just as it has been for gay and lesbian service members post-repeal,” he said.
Daugherty moved to Denver in 2010 and now studies philosophy at Metro State. He needs an undergraduate degree followed by a Master’s in Divinity to become an Episcopal Priest and then study for the chaplaincy.
“A bishop approves military service and sends you to the military as a chaplain,” Daugherty explained the process, driven by churches. “If your denomination endorses you by ordination, you can go to chaplain school in the military.”
And Daugherty said they could use him – a believer whose uncommon journey opened his mind to wide-ranging spiritual needs.
Many chaplains focus on their own religious mission, yet enlisted troops and their families aren’t all of the same faith. Regular churchgoers are “a small percentage of the people who need attention,” he said.
“People are getting killed and people are away from their families,” Daugherty said. “Chaplains are the spiritual psychologists of the military. They do more than preach or have Sunday services.”
Meanwhile, there are “not a lot of gay people ready to sign up for the chaplaincy,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty knows there are servicemembers who could appreciate a gay chaplain. For example, he said many closeted troops got married during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to avoid suspicions they are gay. Some of their families are now in crisis and need understanding spiritual guidance, Daugherty said.
Daugherty said he also knows how to speak to conservatives because of his upbringing. “There’s the phrase, ‘person with homosexual tendencies,’ I’m a ‘gay person with conservative tendencies.’”
He refers to himself as an “open minded traditionalist” theologically.
“I have my Bible-beating moments,” Daugherty laughed. Still, he doesn’t think God has a problem with committed same-sex relationships.
“If God is in their union, they know for themselves whether they’re using each other versus loving each other.”
Daugherty plans to finish his undergraduate coursework in the next 15 months but will have years of work to join the chaplaincy. And while nothing in life is certain, Daugherty is sure he’ll someday minister to soldiers.
If the next years are anything like the last ones, doors will be flung open.
“I would have found out a way to be a chaplain anyway; it wouldn’t have been fun, but I would have done it.” Daugherty said.
“The desire has never gone away; even when I feel like throwing the book on the floor and saying to hell with it, I know God wouldn’t have given me this desire if it wasn’t meant to happen.”