SAN DIEGO – As the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, tens of thousands of gay and lesbian troops around the nation and the world celebrated the official repeal of the U.S. military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the dawn of open service.
For almost 18 years, DADT loomed large over gay and lesbian troops, often used as a witchhunt to discharge servicemembers because of their sexual orientation. More than 14,300 troops were discharged under the policy during its existence, and countless gay Americans were dismissed from military service prior to the implementation of DADT.
But with open service, gay and lesbian troops, for the first time in American history, can now serve their country without fear of reprisal for being themselves. It marks a momentous change in military policy that blots out one of its most shameful acts of discrimination, and it gives root to the movement to treat gay Americans as equal under the eyes of the law.
"Today is not just the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it is the beginning of a new era in which government policies that discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity are rightly seen as shameful and outmoded,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“We salute President Obama for his leadership in bringing this inexcusable discrimination to an end. We also honor the thousands of men and women who were harmed by this policy, including many who made great personal sacrifices in order to speak out against it. While more work lies ahead in the movement for full equality, today we should celebrate how far we’ve come.”
The historical moment was personal for Alexander Nicholson, founder and executive director of Servicemembers United who was dismissed from the Army due to DADT.
"On March 15, 1778 the first American servicemember was drummed out of the military for being gay. Since then, tens of thousands more have had their careers ruined and their lives turned upside down by a succession of anti-gay policies and regulations, culminating in the codification of an anti-gay statute in 1993 with the passage of the ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell law.’ In all, 14,346 men and women were discharged pursuant ‘Don't Ask Don't Tell,’” Nicholson said.
“But thanks to the persistent hard work of unwavering advocates, especially those who have been directly impacted by this issue, and some courageous politicians over the past six years, ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ is now history. As a result, those who continue to serve can sleep easier tonight knowing that they can no longer be arbitrarily fired because of their sexual orientation. Justice has prevailed and ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ is dead. God bless America," he said.
Two out of three Americans support open service, countless polls have shown. President Obama signed the repeal into law in December after Congress voted to end the Clinton-era policy. Since then, the Pentagon has seen that more than 2 million troops have been trained for the policy change.
"Patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," Obama said.
The impact of open service became immediately obvious. Some troops came out to their comrades in arms or their family. One young soldier based in Germany posted a video on YouTube, which has been picked up by the media, in which he tells his dad in Alabama that he is gay. Other troops came out in the media.
J.D. Smith, founder of OutServe, came out … and said his real name was Josh Seefried and he was a first lieutenant in the Air Force.
Lt. Gary Ross and his partner Dan Swezy of Arizona flew to Vermont to get married at 12:01 am today.
"It's an undescribable feeling when you think finally we can be just like everybody else," Swezy told WCAX.
"We didn't come here at the stroke of midnight to be the first or to make news," Ross said. "We came here because we've wanted to get married for years and we didn't want to wait a moment longer than we had to."
For many gay and lesbian troops hiding in the closet, the DADT repeal means that they won’t have to live a double life, but some will choose to remain closeted.
The repeal of DADT is also expected to benefit the military in that a number of troops who were discharged under the policy or who left because of it will now attempt to return to service.
San Diego celebrates
In San Diego, advocates of open service cheered during a celebratory event at Bourbon Street. Reporters from local TV stations marked the occasion with live broadcasts from the nightclub and interviewed former servicemembers who were impacted by DADT.
Today, the celebration will continue in San Diego.
Motorcycle procession through Hillcrest
Starting at 5:30 pm, the San Diego Cruisers Motorcycle Club will show its support of open service by parading down University Avenue from Front Street to Centre Street, where members will park outside The Center.
Freedom to Serve gathering at The Center
A Freedom to Serve ceremony will be held from 6 to 7 pm at The Center, followed by celebratory cocktails.
To RSVP to the event or to donate to the cause, click HERE.
Speakers will include:
* Eric Alva, a Marine who was the first American wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first Purple Heart recipient, and DADT repeal advocate.
* Col. Stewart Bornhoft, Retired Army, and a repeal advocate.
* Jenny Kopfstein, Naval Academy, discharged under DADT.
* Evelyn Thomas, a Marine discharged under DADT, repeal advocate and co-founder of the Sanctuary Project Veterans.
“SALUTE to LGBT Service Members and the End of DADT” at Bourbon Street
Also Tuesday night, the Military Acceptance Project will sponsor “SALUTE to LGBT Service Members and the End of DADT” from 7 to 10 pm at Bourbon Street.
The event is the celebration of ALL LGBT servicemembers and allies, past, present and future. All servicemembers and veterans in attendance will receive a gift.
A highlight will be the 2011 SALUTE Awards, where nine servicemembers or veterans who embody and promote acceptance both in the military and throughout our community, will be honored. Many of them are directly involved in social work, which is the backbone of the MAP organization.
The SALUTE Award honorees include:
* Eric Alva, the first service member injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom and decorated with a purple heart, is nationally recognized in the fight against DADT. After serving 13 years in the Marine Corps, he was medically retired and later came out as a gay man. He testified against DADT in Congress and was there when President Obama signed the bill authorizing the repeal.
* Sean Sala, best known for organizing the first contingent of servicemembers and veterans to march in an LGBT pride parade this year in San Diego. In addition to serving in the Navy for four years, Sala’s work to organize and connect LGBT servicemembers to one another for support purposes, has been outstanding.
* Jenny Kopfstein, a graduate of the US Naval Academy who served for three years until she was discharged as the result of DADT. Kopfstein testified against DADT in Congress and has supported legal cases that found DADT to be unconstitutional. She just completed her law degree at University of San Diego.
* Joe Whitaker, a naval intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. Since leaving the military he has been part of the LGBT community in San Diego and has worked tirelessly as a volunteer for a variety of organizations. Most notably, he supports organizations that help LGBT persons recover from alcoholism and drug addiction.
* Nikki Wolff Conley, a tireless ally and advocate for the equality of women and LGBT people both in the military and beyond. Conley served for six years in the Navy and is completing her master’s in social work at the University of Southern California.
According to the founders of MAP, the fact that another four honorees chose to withold their identities further underscores the fact that the repeal is only the beginning of much needed cultural change within the military, leading to the ultimate acceptance of all servicemembers and their contributions.
DADT celebrations nationwide
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) repeal supporters have scheduled 100 Repeal Day celebrations throughout the nation today.
To find a celebration near you, click HERE.
Soldier comes out to his Dad in Alabama
Veterans speak out on DADT