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Sgt Denny's Rant:
Local Initiatives
National Impact

While the federal government puritanically hides its head in the sand, cities and states across blue America have been steadily moving forward on universal rights.  Many cities now have human rights laws prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment and hate crimes legislation that specifically protects Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.  The first phase of those laws required city agencies, in particular, to eschew discrimination; later came the requirement that businesses doing business with these cities must adhere to inclusiveness as well; and finally that all those operating in those cities may not discriminate.  The road has been far too long, in time and effort, to achieve even these minimal basic human rights in a handful of American cities.

When it comes to taking care of America's veterans, cities, and some states, have begun to take up the slack left by the gap in federal provision for the millions who have sacrificed to serve in our armed forces.  Millions of the baby boom generation who served in the Vietnam Era are now aging (alas), in ill health, and lacking resources and benefits.  At the same time, so many young Americans are coming home hideously maimed and incapacitated from the recent and current wars, with inadequate entitlements.

Cities across America have been appalled to discover their young veterans living homeless on their streets, literally left in the gutter by an administration ideologically intent on redistributing the nation's wealth to the wealthy.  Veteran homeowner tax breaks have been around for some time in many places.  But now, cities are finding it necessary to provide direct assistance to veterans without any home at all, to those without jobs, and to those whose benefits, if any, are inadequate to feed their families.  This stuff costs real money and expanded social services structures; cities and counties are the end of the financial road where real people with real needs are begging and digging in dumpsters.  No American should have to live that way; the shock is that so many who do are patriotic veterans who courageously served our nation.

Meanwhile, we in the movement to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell are simply battling for the Right To Serve.  Why would we want to concern ourselves over benefits for veterans' families when we generally do not qualify for them even if we happen to have families?  There are two reasons.  First, in those cities and states where LGBT equality rights are enshrined, we DO qualify for any local veterans' benefits they enact.  Its not something that had been anticipated; but where such things as partner benefits are the law, any local benefits entitlements apply.  It is necessary, however unfortunately, for us to point that out.

Even where only local tax dollars are at work, its assumed that when it comes to benefits for veterans, queers need not apply.  Wrong.  In New Jersey, a gay WWII vet, living with his partner for decades, routinely got his veterans' homeowner tax break.  When Domestic Partner registration was enacted in New Jersey, under Governor McGreevey, this fellow and his partner where near the head of the line.  In due course, they notified their town clerk --for purposes of enhanced local tax advantages that were  previously only for married couples.  The Town Clerk promptly revoked the veteran's homeowner tax break.  Our veteran sued in State court and won.  But, he should not have had to sue to reverse the official bigotry.

In New York, when the City and State were about to enact similar Veterans' Homeowner tax breaks, I wrote to legislators and went to City Council committee meetings and insisted that the new legislation should specifically state that these benefits are inclusive and may not be denied to LGBT vets.  The reactions were unsurprising.  I was told, "It's not necessary, if you're a vet, you get the benefit."  "Bullshit!," I said, "look what happened in NJ!"

When I spoke up at City Council Committee hearings about this, the leaders of traditional hetero veterans' associations held up their watches to indicate that they were impatiently waiting for my three minutes to run-out so I would shut the hell up.  Afterward they sneered at me and told me to keep my dirty queer rights issues out of the clean pure and honorable issues of veterans' benefits.  I pointed at my veterans cap, with my SFC insignia, and said that I had served too, quite honorably.   I can tell you, it was ever so lovely an experience going to these meetings.

There is a much more subtle reason for us to get involved in local initiatives for veterans' benefits; a reason that has the potential for far more far reaching positive results in our quest for affirmation of our right serve.  Getting involved in general veterans' local initiatives gives us credibility; it gives us recognition as veterans; it gives us the possibility of getting the support of traditional veterans associations because we supported issues for the benefit of all veterans.  Yeah right; frankly, it took proof to convince me of this, given the usual contempt I got from straight vets at City Council meetings.  

In response to the growing evidence of unmet needs of returning veterans, some members of the New York City Council, along with veterans groups, have been proposing the establishment of Veteran Resource Centers in each of the city's five boroughs.  I attended a series of Council Committee hearings and meetings, which were held to advocate for local legislation to create the centers.  After one gets over the thrill of participating in the democratic process within the historic grand rotunda of City Hall, these hearings can get pretty dry as the mind-numbing details of budgetary allocations are dealt with and discussed via the drudgery of political pragmatism.

I also actively participated in and spoke at local veterans' rallies, at the VA hospital and City Hall, to successfully keep the local VA hospital from being shut down, and to protest the disregard of veterans' needs and minority veterans.  At a recent meeting to unify the message of disparate veterans' groups to advocate for the Veteran Resource Centers , I spoke up yet again about the necessity for the legislation to have all inclusive language to assure the entitlement of services for minority groups such as LGBT veterans, disabled vets, and others.  I expected the usual exasperated rolling eyes and held up watches of dismissive contempt for the 'fag vet.'  Instead, I was startled to hear straight minority veteran association leaders around me saying, "Yes, he's right..."  Afterwards, several leaders spoke with me about coordinating our efforts.    It took me a while to realize that all the time spent participating in general local vets' initiatives had garnered respect and support.  Bloody hell; some discrimination had dissolved.

Actively participating in local initiatives is the bedrock of grassroots activism.  The core group of active advocates, around the nation, for the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell law know this.  It is what they have been doing all along, representing Military Equality Alliance (MEA), American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER), SoulForce, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), and other groups, all of which are dedicated to the passage of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA), the Congressional bill that would repeal DADT and allow us to serve openly and free from discrimination.  Members of Congress and their staffs are well aware of the power of grassroots advocacy; when they get letters from straight constituent veterans' groups advocating passage of MREA, they know that local initiatives now include support for our right to serve in our armed forces.

Core activists and leaders cannot accomplish this without the participation of the one million living LGBT veterans in America.  When we march in a Veterans' Day Parade with a block-long contingent of LGBT vets wearing our medals, we get visibility and respect.  When we attend a political forum forty strong we cannot be ignored or forgotten.  A million constituent letters to Congress would command votes.  You can become an MEA grassroots community organizer in your local community, you can join AVER activities or SLDN events in a city near you, you can participate in SoulForce actions from your college campus.  You can simply send an e-mail or telephone your congressperson and meet with them locally.  There's something to do for every citizen and every veteran, from sending a donation to getting more involved at the local level to have our voices heard.