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Gay Marine opts for path 'out'
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The salad hasn't even arrived on our table, but already Jeff Key knows more about me than any of his fellow Marines were allowed to know about him.

"We've been talking for five minutes and I know that you've got a wife and a daughter," Key says in a smooth Alabama drawl. "Those are just the kind of things that men talk about."

Key's observation belies a fundamental flaw with the military's so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for homosexual soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines. The men with whom he went to war were supposed to trust him with their lives - but he wasn't supposed to trust them with his secret.

Key, an Iraq war veteran, anti-war activist and now-discharged Marine, tells his story in a one-man play, "The Eyes of Babylon," which opens at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, in his adopted town of Salt Lake City, on Thursday. A documentary based on the play, called "Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey" will play at the Tower Theater on Monday.

It didn't take long for the Marines who served with Key at Camp Pendleton, in southern California, to realize he was keeping something from them. "I certainly didn't endeavor to come out to people," Key says. "But, you know, I got pushed a lot. One guy was always asking me, 'Why don't you have a girlfriend?' and 'Why don't you tell us what you're doing this weekend?'"

One of Key's squad leaders, Frank Magaña, says "the rumors began pretty much right off the bat - people were making comments, wondering if he was or he wasn't."

When Key finally came out to members of his unit, Magaña said, it was a relief. "Right there, it wasn't really an issue. He was an outstanding Marine. He pulled his own weight. That was the bottom line."

Key said that everyone in his unit ultimately knew that he was gay. No one confronted him. No one told on him.

He already stood out a bit. At 6-foot-4, he was among the tallest Marines in his battalion. And at 34 when he joined, he was old enough to be the father of some of the men with whom he served.

He hadn't joined for college money - he already had a degree from the University of Alabama and had no plans to return to school. Key says he joined simply because he wanted to serve his country as a Marine. And Magaña says that bought the older enlisted man a lot of respect.

"When I first met him, I outranked him - but I was only 23," says Magaña, now a finance professional in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'I'm gonna have to be tough on this guy, I don't want him to play the age card.' But I very quickly realized that was completely unnecessary. He respected me based on my rank and experience."

In turn, Magaña tapped Key to counsel younger Marines as their Iraq deployment - which was expected to end as soon as major combat operations did - dragged on.

Key said he felt guilty leaving his unit behind in Iraq after suffering an abdominal hernia that required surgery, "but we all thought the war was over,'" he says. "They told me, 'it's OK, we're right behind you.' "

But they weren't.

Over the next nine months, Key says he fell into a deep depression. As the war dragged on and as the reasons he and his fellow Marines were sent to Iraq became ever more muddled, it got worse.

Key had been raised a devout and conservative Christian. It had taken lots of prayer to reconcile that faith with his sexuality, but he had managed to do so.

But no amount of prayer was enough for Key to reconcile the teachings of a man he had been taught was the Prince of Peace with a war that he was certain was immoral, illegal and unnecessary.

He contemplated asking for a discharge as a conscientious objector, but there was a problem: In order to do so, he would have to say that he opposed all war. "And that wasn't honest."

"Look," he says, frowning down at his plate. "I don't like violence. But if someone walked into this restaurant right now and started killing people, I would pick up my butter knife and stop them - and thanks to the American taxpayer, I am well qualified to do so."

Two days shy of the war's first anniversary, Key delivered to his commanding officer a letter which he knew would seal his fate as a Marine.

"I have made many mistakes in my life," he wrote. "This is the right thing to do. . . . I am a homosexual."

Now living in Salt Lake City with his partner, Key splits his time between performing his play, participating in anti-war activism (he served as Cindy Sheehan's bodyguard during the Gold Star mother's protest outside President Bush's Texas ranch) and running a foundation which, among other functions, provides college scholarships to Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans who have struggled with alcohol addiction, as he did after returning home from the war.

"I tried to be the best Marine I could be," Key says. "Now, I'm just trying to be the best person I can be - honestly."

mlaplante@sltrib.com

If you go

* "Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey"

* Tower Theater, 876 E. 900 South.

* 7 p.m., Monday.

* $8 at the door. Proceeds go to The Mehadi Foundation.

Jeff Key, now of Salt Lake City, stars in play recounting his decision to leave service
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