Saturday, August 3, 2013

Do Ask, Do Tell: We're All the Stronger For It

September 21, 2012

"As Commander in Chief, I’ve seen that our national security has been strengthened because we are no longer denied the skills and talents of those patriotic Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian. The ability of service members to be open and honest about their families and the people they love honors the integrity of the individuals who serve, strengthens the institutions they serve, and is one of the many reasons why our military remains the finest in the world." – President Barrack Obama, September 20, 2012

A year ago today we took a giant leap forward in living up to our nation's ideals of freedom and equality for all by repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, allowing all Americans the opportunity to serve more honorably, honestly and openly in our military – and be treated more fairly and equally while they’re at it.  

Simply put: People now have the freedom to freely be who they are while defending our freedom.

Certainly, there's more work to be done. Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of  the Servicemember's Legal Defense Network (the organization that led the battle for repeal and continues to fight for equality) sums it up nicely: 

“We cannot forget - even as we celebrate this day - that there is still work to be done in order to reach full equality in the military. Even now, families of gay and lesbian service members, veterans, are treated as second-class citizens, unable to receive the same recognition, support, and benefits as the families of their straight, married counterparts. We must repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and all federal laws that prevent the military from providing the same support for all service members and their families. We cannot have two classes of service members." 

Still, today's a day to rejoice -- we've undeniably come a long way in a relatively short time.  

President Obama signs the repeal, September 20, 2011
I joined the Marine Corps in 1981, before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute was implemented. Back then the unofficial policy (at least in the Marine Corps) was more along the lines of “anyone finds out and you’re dead.”   

Although the Marine Corps emphasizes traits such as honesty and integrity, I was forced to lie in order to enlist and serve – signing a statement assuring the government that I was not a “homosexual,” and had never engaged in, nor had any desire to engage in, “homosexual activities.”

This, despite the fact that our nation’s military, and our nation itself, owes its very beginnings, in large part, to a “homosexual” -- Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

A Prussian military officer, von Steuben distinguished himself in the Seven Years War and served under Frederick the Great. But he was discharged in 1763 and fled to France, where, years later, he met Benjamin Franklin, who urged George Washington to recruit von Steuben to train rebellious farmers into a proficient, disciplined enough force to take on the British. And so he did. Arriving to the colonies in 1777, he began training troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. He did a pretty good job: von Steuben is widely considered the second-most-indispensable hero of the American Revolution after Washington.

A statue of von Steuben in Washington, DC
I learned all that in Marine Corps boot camp.

What I didn't learn until years later is this: von Steuben was gay.

Most biographies of Steuben cautiously state that his homosexuality is "speculative." But here's a bit of evidence: He was discharged from the Prussian army and fled Germany because he was accused of "indiscretions" with "several young men;" He arrived in America with a "handsome" 17-year old Frenchman he was unusually close to; He became the protégé of Pierre L'Enfant (another gay man who George Washington hired to design our nation's Capitol city); He settled in New York (a gay-friendly city even then) and hung out in gay "social sets;" He died a bachelor in 1794 and left all his property to two men he was very close to. 

Sounds pretty gay to me.

Yet, out of justified fear for my life, I had to spend my Marine Corps days lying about, denying and hiding who I really was, and pretending to be something I was not – as have hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who have served our nation from its beginnings. Tragically, thousands have been court-martialed, imprisoned, or dishonorably discharged for being gay. Some were even killed over it.

On October 27, 1992, U.S. Petty Officer Allen R. Shindler, Jr. was brutally murdered by fellow servicemen because it was discovered that he was gay. It became a huge issue during the 1992 presidential campaign and, after being elected to office, President Bill Clinton did what he could under the political realities of the time to push forth change. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute was enacted on December 21, 1993. Despite good intentions, the policy resulted in unrelenting “witch hunts” and invasions of privacy to root out gay service members who were then dishonorably discharged when discovered. More than 1,300 men and women were discharged during the 18-years of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and countless others (like me) had to continue lying, hiding and denying, as did the people they loved and wanted to share their lives with.   

Why?  Because many people wrongly argued that openly out gay service members would have negative impacts on military morale and unit cohesion, and reduce the effectiveness of our military. Some people, such as former Marine Corps Commandant James T. Conway, called homosexuality “immoral.”  

It was a long, hard battle, but on September 20, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act, one of the greatest civil rights achievements of our time.

Thus far (as all sensible people knew would be the case) there has been no negative impact on military moral and unit cohesion. To the contrary, as President Obama so eloquently points out, allowing all qualified, valuable and skilled volunteers to serve in our military (and allowing servicemembers the freedom and equality to be more honest and true to themselves and others while striving to protect and defend our freedom) makes our military, and our nation, all the better and stronger!

In the Congressional Cemetery, on the gravestone of Vietnam veteran Leonard P. Matlovich --  a recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star who was dishonorable discharged from the U.S. Air Force for being gay – is this inscription:  "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

Let’s hope that no patriotic, courageous servicemember is ever again discharged in the land of the free, home of the brave, because of who they love. 

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