The weekend of May 21-23, over 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered veterans of the armed forces gathered for a landmark convention in Washington, D.C. to step up the campaign against the 10-year-old Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that bans LGBT troops from serving openly in the military.
The convention featured seminars, speeches and memorials as well lobbying with dozens of federal lawmakers. American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER), a national organization of LGBT veterans, co-sponsored the convention along with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).
Activist and author Urvashi Vaid, a former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, addressed the group and struck a chord when she said, “It’s all about LGBT people achieving equal rights under the law instead of being officially branded as second-class citizens. Every LGBT person has a vital stake in reaching that goal of legal equality, regardless of what one may think of the military or the institution of marriage.”
Opening day of the convention included a party at the new Human Rights Campaign (HRC) headquarters building, celebrating the 79th birthday of the gay rights pioneer Dr. Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran who sued the government and picketed the White House to end job discrimination against lesbians and gays long before the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
In another highlight of the AVER convention, a panel of insiders from the Clinton administration, discussed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. David Mixner, a gay Democratic fund-raiser and former Clinton aide, said Clinton could have kept his 1992 campaign promise to end the ban on gays and lesbians in the military if only the president had had the credibility of a respected commander in chief and ordered Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not to publicly lobby against lifting the ban.
What happened instead, Mixner related, was that after the LGBT community provided millions of dollars and votes to help get Clinton elected, none of Clinton’s key aides, like George Stephanopoulos, would lead on the issue for fear that association with gays and lesbians would hurt their careers and reputations as “serious” players in the administration.
Nathaniel Franks of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military presented compelling evidence that the policy is actually hurting unit cohesion and military effectiveness. Franks added that a recent Gallup poll shows that 79 percent of Americans, an all-time high, say that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military.
A retired admiral and two generals who came out in The New York Times last December spoke at convention events. Brigadier General Keith Kerr’s voice cracked as he described how living a lie to keep his job meant he could not even properly mourn the death of his beloved partner of 24 years when he died 3 years ago.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Loomis has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that under the principles affirmed by the Supreme Court in Lawrence vs. Texas, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is clearly unconstitutional and must be overturned. The Army expelled Loomis in 1997 eight days shy of retirement after 20 years of service, with only half a lieutenant colonel’s pension.
Convention delegates also laid a wreath at the gravesite of Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, who came out in 1973 and was on the cover of Time magazine. On his tombstone in the Congressional Cemetery is inscribed his famous quote: “My country gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.”
Joe Kennedy was a member of the Gay Activists Alliance in the 1970s and wrote the book “Summer of ‘77: Last Hurrah of the Gay Activists Alliance.” He and Dr. Frank Kameny are grand marshals in this June’s LGBT Pride Parade. For more information, contact American Veterans for Equal Rights New York at averny.tripod.com.