By Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON, D.C. – “There are 65,000 LGBT American service members currently serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world; there are one million veterans,” said C. Dixon Osburn, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “And the government discharges two service members every day for being gay.”
The vast majority of gays and lesbians continue to serve “because the commanders don’t care, or the commanders do care and value our service,” Osburn said at SLDN’s 14th Annual Dinner on May 13, before lobbying Congress.
“There is nothing fair, dignified, or respectful” about the antigay military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Osburn said. SLDN and their dozen plaintiffs will appeal the recent court decision throwing out their legal challenge to that policy. The nation’s ideals of freedom and equality “cannot be hijacked by our enemies.”
“I believe that Justice Kennedy meant what he wrote [in the Lawrence decision striking down sodomy laws], that the government cannot demean our existence or control our destiny by making private sexual conduct a crime. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ fails that standard.”
Over the past year, SLDN has saved the careers of more than three-dozen service members, including six who have served for more than 19 years and would have lost their pensions for being kicked out for being gay.
“We believe there is a real opportunity to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ over the next three to five years,” Osburn said. Public opinion “is solidly behind us,” and even Republicans are split with 46 percent supporting and opposing letting gays serve openly in the military.
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR 1059) would repeal that policy. It has gained 115 cosponsors in the first year after being introduced.
SLDN gave one of the Republican cosponsors, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the Randy Shilts Visibility Award. When she announced that she was co-sponsoring the bill, Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald, “We tried the policy. I don’t think it works. And we have spent a lot of money supporting it. We investigate people, bring them up on charges, basically wreck their lives. People who signed up to serve our country, we need to be thanking them.”
In a videotaped acceptance, Ros-Lehtinen said, “I am proud to support and advance the interests of the lesbian and gay community…to protect the civil rights that are guaranteed to all Americans by our nation’s Constitution.”
“Sexual orientation does not affect your performance in combat and it should not be a factor” in serving the country.
Former Marine Sergeant Brian Fricke spoke of how he came to terms with his sexual orientation and discovered a network of gays and lesbians within the military.
He found great acceptance among his peers who knew he was gay.
The only ones who think it’s a big deal are those here in Washington,” he said.
Still, he had to deny who he was and hide that he had a partner. “I couldn’t share an important part of my life that everyone else was free to talk about,” he said. “I became one of the many LGBT service members who decided on dignity and love.” After five years in the Marines, Fricke made the decision not to reenlist.
Retired General Claudia J. Kennedy, the first woman to achieve three stars, said values are at the core of the military. “I believe that as an institution our military needs to live up to the values we demand of those serving,” Kennedy said. “Military leaders need to respect all service members.”
“When we say, ‘You are good enough to serve Iraq, but not be openly gay,’ we break our trust with all of our service members. It is time to acknowledge that our military is as diverse as the country it protects.”