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Back in 1992, the height of my activist period, there were two main issues I cared about: HIV/AIDS and military service. AIDS was, and remains, a sprawling challenge that touches on hundreds of topics and needs, from sex education to scientific research to condom availability to needle exchange.
At the time, open military service for gay soldiers seemed so easy in comparison. With the promised executive order by President Bill Clinton, it was a simple question that needed just one answer: ”Yes.”
Without re-hashing old battles, things got complicated really fast and we ended up with ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a stain on American patriotism that lasted far longer than it ever should have.
Over the course of my years at Metro Weekly, my colleagues and I have had the privilege of interviewing a long string of brave American lesbian and gay servicemembers, many of them who appeared on the cover, all of them sharing one common theme: They had been discharged or forced to retire from the military simply for the fact of their sexual orientation. The saddest moment I’ve ever had in an interview came talking to Pat Kutteles, mother of Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat for his perceived orientation. DADT and the fear the policy sowed was an undeniable part of Winchell’s murder.
Reporting those stories meant that repealing DADT would always remain the community goal that I was perhaps most personally passionate about.
It’s not that I have a long tradition of military service to draw on for that passion: My father was drafted into the Marines during the Vietnam War and one grandfather served in World War II in Europe. What made the issue so central for me was the basic idea of fairness and opportunity to serve. The military was never a path I would have chosen for myself, but I have always respected those who did. Finally securing their rights to serve openly and honestly has been one of our movement’s finest moments.
Dan Choi and Autumn Sandeen at the December 2010 signing of the DADT Repeal Act
(Photo by Sean Bugg)
After years of covers featuring those who were denied their rights, I am beyond proud to celebrate the anniversary of the repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this week by featuring three openly gay, active-duty servicemembers on our cover. As you will discover in each of their stories, while repeal was a watershed moment, their post-DADT lives are still something of an undiscovered country. As Chief Petty Officer Ronnie Ratliff says, ”We’re testing the waters.”
Even as we celebrate a victory, we have to remember that there’s another battle to be fought for the rights of transgender servicemembers. Too often people blithely describe the repeal of DADT as a victory for LGBT people when it was not. It will be a difficult battle. But many trans activists worked hard for DADT repeal even though it would not directly benefit their community — Autumn Sandeen, a veteran who chained herself to the White House fence alongside Dan Choi, comes to mind — and helped get it done. The gay, lesbian and bisexual community needs to return the favor.
But while that hard work remains, we have earned this community celebration for our lesbian, gay and bisexual brothers and sisters who are now serving in the military both at home and abroad, and living their lives with the dignity and respect they deserve. If you know an LGB person in the military, be sure to congratulate and thank them. If you don’t know one, you likely will soon enough. It’s a new world out there.