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Christopher Neff of GLAA at the
Tomb of the Unknowns
(Photo by Michael Wichita)
Standing on the stairs before the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, Christopher Neff turned his head and sighed: “The wreath is missing.”
The wreath-laying ceremony was scheduled to start in fifteen minutes.
“They are trying to figure out if it ever arrived or if [the Army] already placed it in the display,” said Neff, vice president for administration for the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance (GLAA).
Neff and other GLAA members scattered about the stairs, trying to resolve the issue. This is the twenty-third year GLAA has sponsored a wreath to be placed at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day, in honor of all servicemembers who gave their lives in defense of America, including gays and lesbians. This is the first year that the wreath has gone missing.
The Honor Guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns paced back and forth in silence, paying no heed to the crowd gathered around him, or the unfolding story of the missing wreath. It’s a different, more honorable silence than the one forced on gay and lesbian servicemembers and veterans, both in the past and the present.
“They serve silently and they are veterans silently,” said Neff. “And that really is a tragedy.”
The Tomb of the Unknowns at
Arlington National Cemetery
(Photo by Michael Wichita)
The wreath-laying ceremony itself is short — a multitude of people and organizations conduct the ceremonies throughout the day. The wreath is usually carried by the organization to the Honor Guards, who then place it on a tripod in front of the Tomb. The wreath is displayed for a brief time, until a new ceremony starts. The wreath is then placed with others on the tomb, while a new wreath is placed on the tripod.
Dr. Frank Kameny, a GLAA founder and World War II combat veteran, began the group’s Memorial Day tradition in 1980 after reading a story in a local paper about gay activist Bob Kuntz’s attempt to lay a wreath at the Tomb.
“I’m not sure if he filed the paperwork or not,” Kameny said, “but he was quickly barred and escorted off the cemetery.”
To formally lay a wreath an organization or person must first gain permission from the Army. Wreath-laying ceremonies can be scheduled throughout the year, but Kameny said Memorial Day and Veterans Day are the busiest.
GLAA’s first application was denied. “The Army is very concerned about politicizing the event,” said Kameny. “It is very solemn and in honor of all the war dead.” With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Kameny filed a lawsuit against the Army.
The suit was eventually dropped and GLAA’s application re-worded to refer to remembrance of all soldiers including gays and lesbians. The application was accepted.
The first ceremony was not without problems. Kameny remembered a few regulations that where not followed. “A uniformed soldier usually makes a statement” naming the sponsor of the wreath, Kameny said. “There was no such announcement for us.”
GLAA raised objections about the first ceremony, and found the ceremonies in following years ran much more smoothly. After 23 years, Kameny said, both the Army and the crowds in Arlington Cemetery treat GLAA’s annual ceremony with the respected accorded to other ceremonies.
Former GLAA president Bob Summersgill said things have changed significantly since he began attending the ceremony in 1993.
“When they called our group’s name, you could hear gasps come from the audience,” he said.
GLAA has had to delay the ceremony once before. In 2000, a late filing of the application caused the ceremony to be rescheduled for the day after Memorial Day, Summersgill said. The rescheduled day turned out to be far less hectic than the busy holiday, and a slightly more casual sensibility seeped into the event. After the ceremony was complete, they were even invited to see the guards’ living quarters where they talked about the strict qualifications and training the guards have to go through in order to be part of the Honor Guard.
And so, this year the wreath-laying would again not take place on Memorial Day. GLAA decided to reschedule their own tribute. Kameny said he was trying for Friday, May 30, but as of press time no new ceremony had been scheduled.
Kameny later said the wreath had disappeared sometime in the morning of Memorial Day after being delivered. The Army apologized and agreed to replace it.
Standing on the steps to the Tomb, Neff spoke of the concerns at the heart of the days events, issues of more pressing concern than the delivery of flowers:
“The issue is not whether or not we are serving…because we are. Or whether we are going to win another war, because we will. These people are serving now and we are going to give them the courage and dignity that they give us by fighting for us every day.”