When I went to the event last Saturday, I didn’t know what to expect. I was curious about what would take place and also a little excited to finally meet some of the folks I have read about, including a couple that were interviewed on the last Gay Patriot’s America podcast. What I didn’t expect was what I found and how much this would weigh on my mind, still leaving me to sort out some of it. The aspects involving efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were good while the unanticipated personal side surprised me with the metaphorical kick in the pants. Many people tend to forget that I’ve only been “out” to family & friends for a little over 2 years now, something I myself overlook at times, so perhaps some of the reactions I had to the event are to be expected. However, like I said yesterday I’m going to save most of the personal reflections for a later date on my own blog.
Although I was curious and a little excited about the event on Saturday, I also had some trepidation. I was concerned that I was going to something held by a group of people that had no understanding at all about the military, no respect for the people who serve, who were nothing more than the shrill activists one sees on TV that do more harm than good in turning most people off in disgust to their cause. While I was a bit disappointed that Saturday’s event was mostly a “meet and greet” for those actively involved in the repeal effort, I was pleased to see that my fears were unwarranted and still found the event to be interesting. Given last week’s podcast interview of leaders from Servicemembers United, one of the co-sponsors of the event, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Speaker after speaker from such divergent groups spanning the political spectrum as Servicemembers United, the Human Rights Campaign, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Log Cabin Republicans all sounded the same theme: while repealing the ban against gays serving openly in the military is a civil rights issue, the concerns about military readiness are genuine and have to be treated with respect instead of just being blithely dismissed; Democrats and Republicans are needed to lift the ban as this isn’t just a liberal issue but also a conservative one; while having a president who is sympathetic to repealing DADT is important, real action will take place in the Congress and it is there that much of our focus must be placed; this struggle will not be over in a couple of years as it will take more time to address people’s fears and legitimate concerns, not to mention how slow the legislative process is in Congress.
While I was impressed with the many different speakers, one of those who stood out the most to me was Sharra Greer from SLDN. A very articulate and thoughtful lady, who knows her stuff you could say. She emphasized repeatedly that Republicans are very much needed in this struggle, not only for votes to repeal the ban but also given the public perception that the GOP in general is stronger on defense. Addressing the concerns of skeptical Republicans and winning them over would lend credibility and perhaps enable a smooth implementation of changes once DADT is gone. Think Nixon going to China. I particularly liked how she said that Pentagon leaders need to be treated with the respect they deserve, as they too are critical not only during the effort to repeal the ban but also once success is reached as gays are openly integrated into military service. Her SLDN colleague, Aubrey Sarvis, followed this up with an interesting discussion about strategies and real politics. Since I’m hardly the policy wonk myself, some of the details about the political process were a little boring but also fascinating at the same time if that makes any sense.
The other speaker that impressed me the most was Alex Nicholson of Servicemembers United. He echoed many of the themes Greer touched upon, but from the perspective of someone who had served in the military. Nicholson was as articulate and thoughtful as Greer, but the experience he brings as a veteran is something that has been sorely needed in this struggle. He brought up things that I don’t believe others had thought of, such as reaching out to veterans groups like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I was unaware that these two leading veterans groups consistently pass resolutions calling for a return to the more restrictive policy that existed prior to DADT. I must say that I’m disappointed to hear that but given the age of the leadership of these groups and how much society has changed since the time they served, it shouldn’t be too surprising. Nicholson was adamant about how important these groups are and that veterans both gay and straight who support repealing DADT are needed to approach local chapters, similar to the successful efforts by the Call to Duty Tour last year. I liked this not only from a realpolitik standpoint, but also because such efforts will respect the overall work of these groups and perhaps inject some needed balance to this debate on military service. Most surprising of all was that Nicholson didn’t hesitate to point out the “anti-military element” in the gay community that is severely detrimental to this struggle and has to be dealt with. I saw more than one head nodding in agreement when he said that and nobody objected. I wanted to stand and cheer at that moment, if not at least slap him a high-five for saying what needed to be said. The day before last Saturday’s event, I read a truly despicable column by Greg Marzullo of the Washington Blade about this with the usual anti-military rhetoric. When those who are connected to the military and are hesitant about lifting the ban read such things as this…
“What if all these people had been working for world peace instead? What if every one of these unfairly discharged queer persons was planting gardens, feeding the homeless and saving vanishing habitats?” I understand that it’s important in terms of equality for people to be able to “serve their country,” but there’s a part of me that thinks, “Why? They don’t want us for canon fodder? Good riddance, and fuck off.”
…does anyone really think that they are not going to respond in kind? Treating military service as being nothing more than “destruction of current cultures at the hands of patriarchal, autocratic monsters” is not liable to make them sympathetic to one’s cause. Dismissing their sacrifices for the country by saying to soldiers, “Well, don’t. Because I didn’t ask you to” is apt to enrage them.
I heard a lot of positive things in the meeting last Saturday, but I’d like to see this anti-military element confronted more and believe such is crucial for the successful repeal of DADT. Veterans in the gay community, like many of those I met, should take more of a leadership role in this because through the experience of their service they bring a unique voice. It is difficult for me to adequately convey this in words, but these folks get it and their voices will go a long way to allay many of the fears and concerns that opponents of repealing the ban have. Let me put it this way, I grew up an “Army brat” and served myself in the Navy so I understand the culture of the military and respect for those who wear the uniform was instilled in me from a very young age. My father served in the military and was my hero as a boy. As I became an adult I grew to see him for what he is: a good but flawed man, like most of us, yet in many respects he remains the hero of my youth. Given the number of people who have grown up as children of servicemembers, or who are veterans themselves, I’m not the only one with such a high regard for military service. This anti-military element does more than just strike at the respect we have for the military but also personally offends many of us. When those like Marzullo so thoughtlessly insult my Dad and other members of family, how am I not going to be offended? If I as a gay man react like this, how much more negative is the response going to be from those who are not gay and may have little understanding of homosexuality? This isn’t about whether one supports or opposes the Iraq War or even one’s opinion of the Bush Administration, but it is about how we treat those who’ve responded to our country’s call and giving them the respect they have earned with their sweat, blood and tears. While I do agree with the civil rights aspect in repealing DADT, if we are to see such efforts succeed more will be needed. Gay veterans and their straight allies from the DADT repeal groups need to step forward whenever a high-profile activist group or politician unjustly defames the military and those who serve. Beyond the fact that this is just pragmatic politics in defending those whom one is trying to court the favor of, what has been overlooked is that such disgusting anti-military rhetoric by implication is directed at gay servicemembers too! Leaders in the gay community are quick to stand up and denounce folks who directly insult or are perceived to offend homosexuals, but I have yet to hear them do likewise when it comes to the military in general. Gays in uniform deserve their respect, as well as those who are not gay, and if we are to make any progress than those reluctant to consider lifting the ban must hear us speak up. After the events of this past weekend, I am hopeful that this message came through loud and clear and look forward to further efforts in this struggle as we move closer to that day when gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military.
Finally, I had a great time afterwards watching Navy stomp the heck out of Army with many of the people I had met. I’d also like to say that in addition to Greer, Nicholson and many of the others, I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Jarrod Chlapowski and Eric Alva. Chlapowski is a bright and personable man, and those qualities combined with his experience of having served in the Army will go far in helping the group he represents and the overall movement to repeal DADT. As for Alva, well let’s just say that big things do indeed come in small packages and it was an honor to meet him. The integrity of the man was visibly apparent and his kindness to me was greatly appreciated. I regret that I didn’t take any photos (the flag display was awesome) but I spent most of the time taking everything in. If you’d like to see photos, there are some good ones at HRC’s website and Good As You has videos of the speeches from last Friday.
UPDATE: Servicemembers United have a pretty cool panorama shot of the 12,000 flags display up at their site.
— John (Average Gay Joe)