Hope in the desert: Observing DoD Pride while serving in Afghanistan

(Editor’s note: Garth Langley is an active-duty U.S. Marine 1st Lt. from the San Francisco Bay Area and currently deployed as a public affairs officer to Helmand province, Afghanistan. He submitted this previously published article so our readers could gain insight in what's happening in the U.S. military post-DADT.)

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Harvey Milk once said, “The important thing is not that we cannot live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” Decades after his assassination, Milk’s larger-than-life presence reverberates throughout the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender community. His vision for equality and inclusion for LGBT Americans transcended his time.

As a Naval officer, during the Korean War, Milk served aboard the USS Kittiwake as a diving officer. He was one of the first openly gay elected political leaders in San Francisco, and will forever be known as an activist who lived and died believing in the vehicle of change, hope. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet shatter every closet door,” said Milk.

For his trailblazing efforts, Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom during 2009. He sparked necessary change in LGBT rights across all spheres of American society, including the military. Activists who were at the helm during the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act were successful because of his vision.

On the morning after the one-year anniversary of the defeat of DOMA and on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the New York Stonewall Inn Riots, approximately 50 service members represented by all five branches of the U.S. military, along with members of the U.K. military and civilian contractors gathered to recognize the Department of Defense’s LGBT Month, aboard Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, June 27, 2014.

The observance joined a long list of pride events at military bases across the United States and overseas. This weekend also joined LGBT events such as the New York City Pride, San Francisco LGBT Pride, and the upcoming San Diego LGBT Pride celebration in July.

San Diego Pride has been at the forefront of LGBT military news since the repeal of DADT. In 2011, active-duty service members marched in the parade wearing branch-specific shirts. In 2012 and 2013, a movement of service members garnered international media attention that led to the authorization for service members to wear approved dress uniforms in the civic event.

PRESIDENTIAL PROCLAMATION

On May 30th, 2014, the White House released a proclamation signed by President Barack Obama declaring June as LGBT Pride Month. “As progress spreads from state to state, as justice is delivered in the courtroom, and as more of our fellow Americans are treated with dignity and respect our Nation becomes not only more accepting, but more equal as well. During Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, we celebrate victories that have affirmed freedom and fairness, and we recommit ourselves to completing the work that remains,” stated the proclamation.

The proclamation was celebrated at a very important time in LGBT history. On June 28, 1969, gay rights activists took to the streets of New York after police unduly raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar. The riots that ensued led to a revolutionary gay rights movement and the beginnings of the modern-day pride celebrations.

“This month, as we mark 45 years since the patrons of the Stonewall Inn defied an unjust policy and awakened a nascent movement, let us honor every brave leader who stood up, sat in, and came out, as well as the allies who supported them along the way. Following their example, let each of us speak for tolerance, justice, and dignity because if hearts and minds continue to change over time, laws will too,” said President Barack Obama in the proclamation.

On May 31, 2014, the DoD released an official memorandum announcing it would join the “Nation in celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month during the month of June. The LGBT community has written a proud chapter in this fundamentally American story by reminding us that integrity and respect remain corner stones of our military and civilian culture,” stated the memorandum.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Aaronchristian Abreu, 24, a hospital corpsman and native of Los Angeles, joined fellow deployed service members to organize a pride observance aboard Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“As an openly gay service member, the pride observance means a lot,” said Abreu. “It is celebrating and recognizing that our gay, lesbians and bisexual brothers and sisters who can now serve freely without the fear of reprisal due to their sexual orientation. Recognizing the LGBT community shows that we are setting the example to our civilian counterparts and that we do not discriminate. We welcome everyone to our organization and value the diverse talents and skills that they have regardless of their national origin, race, religious belief, gender or sexual orientation.”

HOPE IN THE DESERT

Before being deconstructed last month, a rectangular wooden chapel stood in the center of dusty Camp Leatherneck. A large sign was posted out front with jet-black spray-paint lettering that read, “Hope in the Desert.” While everyone faces the stress of being away while on a deployment, LGBT service members once faced the added burden of concealing their sexual orientation. Friday’s ceremony was a clear indication of how those fears have decreased since the repeal of DADT.

The hour long program began with a dual-rendition of the National Anthem by U.S. Marines 1st Lt. Skye Martin and Lance Cpl. Aubrie Hepler.

With heads bowed and a moment of silence, U.K. Chaplain Squadron Leader Alex Hopson delivered the invocation. “You have broken down barriers. You have made rainbows dance in our eyes. You have offered us dreams that reach for the galaxies. You have awakened the long craving for love,” said Hopson.

The ceremony was followed by a reading of President Obama’s LGBT Month Proclamation and a selected top ten list of historic LGBT moments. Service members and military contractors formed up behind the podiums to read the list.

TOP TEN LGBT MOMENTS

December 15, 1950

A Senate report titled "Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government" is distributed to members of Congress after the federal government had covertly investigated employees' sexual orientation at the beginning of the Cold War. The report states since homosexuality is a mental illness, homosexuals "constitute security risks" to the nation because "those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons."

Over the previous few years, more than 4,380 gay men and women had been discharged from the military and around 500 fired from their jobs with the government. The purging became known as the "lavender scare."

August 30, 1956

American psychologist Evelyn Hooker shared her paper titled "The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual" at the American Psychological Association Convention in Chicago. After administering psychological tests to groups of homosexual and heterosexual males, the research concluded homosexuality is not a clinical entity and that heterosexuals and homosexuals do not differ significantly. Her experiment became very influential, changing clinical perceptions of homosexuality.

June 28, 1969

Patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NY riot when police officers attempt to raid the popular gay bar around 1 a.m. Since its establishment in 1967, the bar had been frequently raided by police officers trying to clean up the neighborhood of "sexual deviants."
Angry gay youth clashed with aggressive police officers in the streets, leading to a three-day riot during which thousands of protestors received only minimal local news coverage. Nonetheless, the event was credited with reigniting the fire behind America's modern Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual rights movement.

March 2, 1982

Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. To this date, there are 18 states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

December 21, 1993

The Department of Defense issued a directive prohibiting the U.S. Military from barring applicants from service based on their sexual orientation. "Applicants shall not be asked or required to reveal whether they are homosexual,” stated the new policy. This prohibited the applicants from engaging in homosexual acts or making a statement that he or she is homosexual. This policy was known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

September 21, 1996

President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. The law defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman and that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from out of state.

May 18, 2004

Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. The court found the prohibition of gay marriage unconstitutional because it denies dignity and equality of all individuals. As of today there are 19 states that recognize same sex marriages.

October 28, 2009

The Matthew Shepard Act was passed by congress and signed into law by President Obama. The measure expanded the 1969 U.S. Federal Hate Crime Law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered near Laramie, October 7, 1998, because of his sexual orientation.

December 18, 2010

The U.S. Senate voted 65-31 to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. Military. This allowed gays, lesbians and bisexuals service members to openly serve without the fear of reprisal.

September 3, 2013

DoD announced that it made benefits available to opposite-sex spouses are now available to same-sex spouses as well. This event was in relation to the Supreme Court’s decision of striking section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act during June 2013. This marked a turning point on how the United States government treats the relationships of married same-sex couples for federal programs that are linked to being married. Because of this repeal, service members in same-sex marriages and their families can now receive equal support and benefits. Federal employee’s same-sex spouses can now receive health insurance and retirement benefits and same-sex widows and widowers can now receive Social Security survivor benefits.

LT. CLAUDIO ALVARADO

United States Navy Lieutenant Claudio Alvarado, 26, a native of Cedar Hill, Texas, provided keynote remarks during the pride observance aboard Camp Leatherneck.

Alvarado delivered a heart-felt speech about coming out and his journey in the military. He was surprised yet humbled when asked to share his story. “I never expected I would be in Afghanistan and delivering a speech about diversity,” said Alvarado.

“As an LGBT sailor, being a part of a ceremony that embraces the diversity that is well and alive in the military makes me proud to serve,” said Alvarado. “This ceremony is an accomplishment for the LGBT community and the military and I am honored to be a part of it.”

Alvarado comes from a military family. He was born in Heidelberg, Germany, while his father was stationed there as an Army hospital medic. His two brothers joined the U.S. Army and served two combat tours in Iraq, one currently serves with the Army National Guard.

He joined the Navy Dec. 5, 2009, under controversial DADT. Like many LGBT service members during this time, he joined knowing he would likely have to keep his sexual orientation a secret, or face the consequences. “I joined the military when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted and I joined knowing that I would never be fully out to my coworkers. Coming from an environment that fully embraced my sexuality to having to hide a part of me was a difficult process,” said Alvarado.

Despite this, he says the Navy attracted him early on for the unique opportunities the civilian sector lacked.

“The Navy has given me a plethora of opportunities all within my first four years as a nurse,” said Alvarado. As a certified pediatric emergency nurse he is trained for trauma situations and works as a part of the Shock Trauma Platoon and provides basic emergency care in times of mass casualties and allows the military to extend the “Golden Hour,” the period of time in which medical care is most essential to saving lives.

During his first tour on active duty, Alvarado has worked in pediatrics, emergency and trauma medicine. He has attended trauma courses in Los Angeles, U.S. Air Force flight nurse training, and the Combat Casualty Care Course in San Antonio. Currently he is serving as surgical flight nurse with Combat Logistics Battalion 7 in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Alvarado’s remarks were light-hearted, yet profound. He said he felt conflicted when he sat down to prepare his speech. “I kept coming back to the same question, why do we have pride?” said Alvarado. “Some people are gay, so what. Why bring this to light?”

“The truth is that even though the DoD repealed DADT, we as service members are still not comfortable with the topic. Some people still don’t understand homosexuality.”

Alvarado first came out to his mother at 15 years old.

“She is my all. It was a period of time where my friends in high school knew about my sexuality, yet I didn’t know why I had not told my mother,” said Alvarado. “I was scared to let her know this part of my life. I was scared she would disown me. I was scared she would never see me the same.”

Despite all of that, Alvarado summed up the courage. While shopping in a department store his mom asked, “What do you think of this shirt?” He took the opportunity and just said it.

“Mommy, I am gay.”

Her face was in shock. Alvarado said they stared at one another for what seemed like a lifetime. She broke the silence before Alvarado could say anything more.
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?”

In Spanish she said, “Tu eres mi hijo, y te amo,” (“You are my son, and I love you.”)

Despite how difficult it was to tell his mother he said it was the right thing to do. “She raised me to always do what I felt in my heart,” said Alvarado. “She also taught me to be strong. Coming out to her was probably one of the hardest things I had to do.”

Alvarado said in terms of his family and close friends, coming out was a unique and very personal experience. “No one can guarantee that this process will have a positive impact on your family and friends,” said Alvarado. “However, this part of your life should not hinder you from having a true relationship with your family and close friends.”

OUT IN THE RANKS

Alvarado described how difficult it was to muster up the courage to come out to his fellow service members. “With every new duty station we must gauge the situation around us to see if it is safe to come out,” said Alvarado. “We have to take into consideration other people’s feelings to see if we can keep up a good working environment.”

He posed a difficult question to the audience, “Why is there a general fear in coming out?” “The confusion around the topic breeds fear,” said Alvarado. “Some people just don’t understand and it’s hard to let someone know that part of your life which allows them to judge you and treat you differently. But if you do decide to come out you have to anticipate the rumors.”

“In your work environment, be cognizant of the fact that your work life will be altered after you come out,” he said. “You must be able to stand up for yourself and expect to face scrutiny. Not everyone will accept you for who you are. Be sure to have a good work support system in order to help you through this process.”
Alvarado said that before he was able to be out with his military peers, he attempted to act tougher, be better and to never let anyone suspect that he was gay. That is until he met a Marine recruit who was gay while on duty one evening.

“I didn’t understand this until I met a patient in the Emergency Room working at Balboa Naval Hospital,” said Alvarado. “I received a report that a 17 year old recruit from Marine Corps Recruit Depot was being admitted for a suicide attempt. As an ER nurse, the story really doesn’t shock you. It happens a lot and I knew everything I had to do before he came in.”

After dressing his wounds, Alvarado sat down next to the recruit while he sobbed. “I attempted to reassure him that he was in a safe environment,” said Alvarado.

The recruit looked up at Alvarado and said, “Sir, I never wanted to be in this position, I never thought I would have done this. I wanted to be in the Marines to be a part of something bigger. I thought everyone would accept me for being gay, but I was wrong. The constant jokes about being gay was something I was used to. But being in a group that never accepted me left me alone and scared.”

“I was speechless,” said Alvarado. He was inspired by the recruit’s raw comments and promised to be the change he wanted to see in others. “I vowed to have the confidence that I was no different than my peers. I understand that while I see this change in myself, acceptance must come from everyone, straight or gay.”

“So this is why we have pride month,” said Alvarado. “To shine the light on something that is alive and well in the military today. We will no longer be scared to come out, or scared to love whomever we love, and be treated as equals. There is no need to be fearful.”

MODERN FAMILIES

At the end of the observance a video produced by the American Military Partner Association, a 20,000 member support network for LGBT families was played. The video displayed messages of LGBT history, and included landmark legal achievements reached in recent years. The video also included a slideshow of same-sex couples tying the knot in military dress uniforms.

MILESTONE MONTH

The month of June will continue to be a proud one for LGBT men and women, especially those defending American freedoms deployed or at home. Pride observances remind us that change and acceptance is occurring around us, you just have to look.

Harvey Milk and the leaders of yesterday would be proud of the achievements of today’s LGBT torch bearers. This weekend we stand on their shoulders and continue the effort to spread diversity, equality and inclusion in the depths of our society. LGBT pioneers proved that while we cannot live on hope alone, it certainly isn’t worth living without.

For LGBT personnel at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan there is hope in the desert.

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