Out of Step

Memoir of a Discharged Navy WAVE

By Katie Miller

“Out of Step” is the memoir of J. Lee Watton, a young woman from New Jersey enlisting in the Navy in 1965. Trained as a WAVE (an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) at a since-decommissioned base in Bainbridge, Mass., Watton was forced out of the military after a brief time because she was a “suspected homosexual.” Her story is a historical account of the military policies toward gays and lesbians decades before the inception of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), but also a narrative familiar to all service members — past and present — who have been discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.

Like many young recruits, Watton entered the military unaware of her feelings toward the same sex. She was immediately thrust into the all-consuming rigors of basic training, where even the routine of drill, briefs and instruction could not keep her attention off Kate Harrison of sister Company C. These uncomfortably romantic feelings pervaded her thoughts, and it is both entertaining and relatedly painful to read the internal dialogue Watton has with herself regarding her sexuality.

Watton also amuses with a rare insight into the culture of the all-female boot camp in the 1960s Navy. The comical barracks banter, the issuance of (often crude) nicknames, and the women’s reactions to the silliness of military culture (i.e. folding one’s inspection underwear to standard) will elicit a laugh of recognition across generations. After Watton finally meets Kate and is introduced to the tight-knit community of lesbians at the Bainbridge Naval Base, her adventures will sound especially familiar to gays and lesbians who have served. The trips to gay bars on weekends, their use of the word “family” to describe one another, and the immense caution they take to avoid raising suspicion on post will resonate with OutServe members.

“Out of Step” also reveals the disturbing history of military policy toward gays, which dates back much further than the 1993 implementation of DADT. After a mere six months in the Navy, Watton and her group of friends are suspected of homosexuality and consequently interrogated by their superiors. Despite the inability to produce evidence, they are coerced into leaving the military.

The newly discharged women move to nearby Washington, D.C. to make a living and pursue their previously forbidden relationships. They quickly fracture, leaving the women to independently explore other career options. At this point, the memoir becomes rushed, as Watton relocates several times, marries and divorces a man, has a child, and later reconnects with Kate, though Watton’s time as a Navy WAVE continues to be relevant.

“Out of Step” is a coming-of-age, coming-to-terms story that appeals to a wide-range of audiences. The story is not glamorous, but its unfiltered honesty and Watton’s reflections over the decades make “Out of Step” a unique read. The book’s release following the repealing of DADT, combined with the foreword by Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, render “Out of Step” as both a timely and timeless work.

[“Out of Step” (2011) can be purchased in eBook form on Amazon here.]

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