home about media center archive history letters subscribe
 


History:


The Gay Veterans Movement To Achieve
Equality In America's Armed Forces


 by James C. Darby & Patrick Bova


April 2009

Although the history of the gay veterans movement in this country goes all the way back to 1776 when Lt. Gottfried Enslin was kicked out of the Army at Valley Forge, we are going to concentrate on what is generally referred to as the modern gay veterans movement and particularly on Gay Lesbian Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA), now American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER).
 
We know that there were gay local veterans organizations forming around this country at about the same time that gay organizations were coming into existence.  Following WWII most of these groups were local.
 
At the first GLBT March on Washington (MOW) in 1987, GLBT veterans who were meeting other GLBT veterans began to realize the need and the value for having a national GLBT veterans organization.  Members from across California’s Veterans C.A.R.E. were the largest group at the March.  Returning home from the MOW communication began among some of these groups to form a national group.
 
 In 1989, Cliff Arnesen and Stan Berry from New England Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America traveled to Washington, DC to give oral testimony at the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Veterans Affairs.
 
In 1990 six veterans who were in attendance at the NGLTF Creating Change Conference in Minneapolis in February formed a veterans organization and named it Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America.  Most of them came from local GLBT veterans groups. 
 
On Thursday, May 17, 1990, the National Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America was founded in Washington, DC, by  the lesbian veteran activist and former US Army SSgt. Miriam Ben-Shalom, along with the assistance of four gay veterans and a bisexual veteran.
 
Those co-founder military veterans included: Former Navy Ensign, Jim Woodward, President, San Diego Veterans Association; Bill Lake, First Officer, Veterans Council for Equal Rights and Equality (C.A.R.E.), Los Angeles, CA; Ken Huntington (AKA Ron Rasmussen, Jr.), President, Texas Gay Veterans Association; former Navy
Chief Petty Officer, Chuck Schoen, Public Affairs Officer representing Veterans C.A.R.E Redwood Empire, CA, and the  predominantly gay, American Legion, Alexander Hamilton Post 448, San Francisco, CA; and bisexual US Army veteran Cliff Arnesen, President, New England Gay Lesbian & Bisexual  Veterans, Boston, MA. GLBVA was officially incorporated in the State of Wisconsin.
 
Former Army SGT Miriam Ben-Shalom, Milwaukee, WI was elected as the first President.  Groundwork was laid for the creation of a National Constitution and By-Laws.  Miriam traveled the country creating new chapters.  By 1992 GLBVA had 44 chapters across the country.

Cliff Arnesen, MA, Ron Rasmussen, TX and Chuck Schoen, CA went to Washington to give oral testimony at the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Veterans Affairs in 1990 and in 1991 Kitt Kling of Washington, DC gave testimony before the same  Subcommittee.

 
In 1992 and 1993 two events happened in this country that truly energized the gay veterans community.  The first event was President-Elect Bill Clinton’s statement in 1992, that, if elected, he would end the ban against gays serving openly in the military.  Unfortunately, President Clinton settled for the disastrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which still plagues us today.
 
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” created a virtual firestorm across this country.  It seemed that everyone in the country, and especially every politician weighed in.  The following 1993 March on Washington turned out the largest gathering of gay veterans ever seen in this country.  Several demonstrations in Washington resulted in the arrest of three gay veterans at the White House.
 
The second event was the murder of Allen Schindler by two of his shipmates in Sasebo, Japan, also in the fall of 1992.  The Navy tried to cover up the incident, but activist Michel Petrelis accompanied Allen’s mother, Mrs. Dorothy Hadjys, to Japan for the trial.  Michael blew the lid off the whole incident.  Allen Schindler became an immediate cause celebre.  Memorial services were held for Allen Schindler across the country, with Chicago, his home town, having the largest.  Nearly 700 people turned out for the Chicago service.
 
Also in 1992 a national conference of gay veterans was held in Washington, DC and Baltimore where plans were made for GLBVA to participate in the upcoming March on Washington.  An evening meeting in Washington included a meeting with Congressman Gary Studds of Massachusetts.  In that year Randy Shilts was interviewing gay veterans for his forthcoming book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military which was published in 1993.
 
The main event of 1993 was the second national March on Washington where many gay veterans participated including the Campaign for Military Service and several GLBVA chapters and other GLBT organizations.  The Campaign for Military Service consisted of a bus load of veterans including such people as Miriam Ben-Shalom, Tracy Thorne, Alan Stephens and Tanya Domi.  The bus traveled from Minneapolis, through Chicago, Indianapolis and other cities, to Baltimore and Washington to raise awareness of the gays in the military issue.

GLBVA held what might be considered its first National Convention at the Washington Hilton Hotel.  At that convention Miriam Ben-Shalom resigned as president and Gene Barfield, Vice-President from Vermont became Acting President and Nancy Russell of Texas became Vice President.  At the time there were 47 chapters and affiliates listed in The Forward Observer, the national newsletter of GLBVA.


Wreath Laying ceremony, Tomb of the Unknown 1993

 
The Second March on Washington was the largest gathering of GLBT people ever held in the country.  Despite what the newspapers said –and later recanted–there were more than one million people in attendance. GLBVA participated in many events at the March including the following:
 


Color Guard, Lincoln Memorial

-Wreath Laying ceremonies at both Arlington and Congressional Cemeteries
 
-A Color Guard presentation and Press Conference at the Lincoln Memorial
 
 -A demonstration and protest in front of the White House were 30 people were arrested including  three gay veterans: Miriam Ben-Shalom, Wisconsin, Jim Darby, Illinois and Don MacIver, New York.
 
In 1993 Aldo Rodriquez gave oral testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Veterans Affairs.
 
Acting Vice President Nancy Russell attending the NGLTF Creating Change Conference in North Carolina called for a national convention in San Antonio to be held in February 1994 to work on the future of GLBVA.
 
At the San Antonio convention the newly reorganized GLBVA was incorporated in the state of Vermont and the constitution was written.  Newly elected officers were in place: President Nancy Russell, Texas, Vice President, Stave Webb, Michigan, Treasurer, Lloyd Haver, Michigan and Secretary Tere Frederickson, Texas.  Tere Frederickson became the first nationally elected transgender officer of GLBVA.
 
In May of 1994 Nancy Russell traveled to Washington to give oral testimony before the U.S. House  Subcommittee on Oversight and Veteran Affairs.  Also in Washington in May members of GLBVA participated for the first time in the Joiner Conference on the Concerns of Veterans, sponsored by the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. GLBT veterans, including many GLBVA members converged on New York City to march in the parade celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.  Also in 1994 a mid-year meeting of GLBVA officers was held in Las Vegas.
 
The annual convention in 1995 was held in West Hollywood, California and officers were elected for two year terms (the 1994 election was for one year only).  They included President Nancy Russell, Texas, Vice President Jim Darby, Illinois, Secretary Tere Frederickson, Texas and Treasurer Lloyd Haver, Michigan.  In parallel with 1994, GLBVA members again participated in the Joiner Conference in Washington and traveled to New York City, this time to march in a parade commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II.
 
The 1996 convention was held in San Antonio, Texas.  Since officers were elected for two year terms there were no elections at this convention.  In Washington DC, GLBVA members were busy.  Besides attending the Joiner Conference again, several members participated in Washington, DC’s June Pride events including


Matlovich graveside memorial service

-a memorial service at the grave of SGT Leonard Matlovich at the Congressional Cemetery
-Laying of wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery
-meeting at the White House with Jeff Levy, Deputy Director of the White House National AIDS Policy office
-meeting with Richard Socarides, Deputy Assistant to the President also at the White House
-meeting with Elizabeth Birch, Executive Direct of HRC
-and marching in the Washington DC’s Lesbian and Gay Pride Freedom Festival Parade
 
In 1996 there was activity relating to hearings on granting parole to Terry Helvey, convicted murderer of Alan Schindler.  Dorothy Hadjys-Holman asked GLBVA to send faxes to the Naval Clemency and Parole Board protesting granting Helvey parole.  So many faxes were sent that the board asked Mrs. Hadjys to get people to stop.  Mrs Hadjys later thanked GLBVA for its activism in this instance.
 
The 1997 convention was held in Corpus Christi, Texas with some meetings held aboard the USS Lexington, docked there.  Jim Darby, Illinois was elected President, Nancy Russell, outgoing President was honored for her accomplishments – for spending five years building GLBVA, obtaining the 501(c) (3) status for GLBVA with the IRS and testifying on gays in the military and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before Congress.
 
Other 1997 officers were Nancy Russell, Vice President, Mel Tips, California, Treasurer and Jim Donovan, Illinois, Secretary.
 
The featured speaker at the convention was Capt Warren Dinges who had served 5 months at Ft,. Leavenworth prison after it was discovered that he was gay.
 
Jim Darby as newly elected President sent a letter to Secretary of Defense General Shallikashvili asking him to meet with gay veterans at the Pentagon.  The new board also produced the first of the annual Letters and Declarations that would emanate from each convention. The first, The Lexington Letter urging lifting the ban on gays serving on the military was sent to the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the Veterans Affairs Administration and all 538 members of Congress.  Such letters were to be produced at every GLBVA convention from then on.
 
A response from the Pentagon was sent to President Darby that the Pentagon would meet with representatives from GLBVA and a date was set up to do so during the May 1997 Joiner Conference.  This meeting was the first time that acknowledged gay veterans were allowed to walk in the front door of the Pentagon.  Issues discussed at the meeting included the sodomy clause of the UCMJ that discriminates against gays, recoupment of training costs of discharged GLBT military, improved treatment of veterans with HIV/AIDS and the upgrading of less than honorable discharges.

In August of 1997 the film Any Mother’s Son: The Dorothy Hadjys Story premiered and a slide presentation on the Gay Veterans Movement was prepared by Jim Darby, Chicago, for use at colleges and universities and wherever it would be welcomed.
 
The 1998 convention was held in Denver.  A major feature of this meeting was a panel made up of Michelle Benecke of SLDN and Edward Modesto from Illinois.  The panel discussed the situation with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Modesto’s experiences with removal from the military for being gay and his subsequent incarceration at Ft. Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.
 
The Denver Declaration was prepared and sent out to the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense and all members of Congress as had The Lexington Letter the year before.
 
Again members of GLBVA attended the Joiner Conference in Washington, DC in May – the 8th year of participation.  Reports were given at that meeting on the previous year’s  meeting at the Pentagon and White House   Members also met with leaders of HRC and NGLTF in an effort to keep them informed and active in the fight to lift the ban and to thank them for their interest and support.
 
The annual convention of the VFW, as usual, issued a resolution against gays serving in the military and urging the retention of the ban.  A letter in response was prepared by Chicago chapter Public Affairs Officer George Buse.
 
In 1999 the national convention was held in Palm Springs, California in February.  Featured speaker was Col. Cliff Anchor, famous gay veteran activist and lover of both Dr. Tom Dooley and Sgt. Leonard Matlovich.  Sgt Matlovich came out nationally in1975 and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine.
 
The Palm Springs Letter was prepared and sent to national office holders from the President to all 538 members of Congress.
 
The GLBVA contingent to the Joiner Conference  May 1999 was the largest ever – and the largest group of veterans at the Conference.  As usual an effort was made to educate members of Congress on the evils of DADT and to urge consideration of lifting the ban on gays in the military.
 
The annual conference  2000 was held in Las Vegas  – chosen because it was easy to get to and inexpensive. The Las Vegas Letter was prepared and sent out as usual.
 
And again GLBVA participated in the Joiner Conference.  GLBVA also participated  the Millennium March on Washington (MMOW) by sponsoring a booth at the festival and by participating in the parade and other events.  The highlight of GLBVA participation and inclusion was the appearance of GLBVA President Edward Clayton as a speaker at the rally after the march.

\
Memorial at the grave of Leonard Matlovich, 2000

 
In November, 2001 GLBVA national sent a donation of $2,200 to the World War II memorial fund to honor all veterans and particularly to be sure that gay veterans would not be overlooked on the stone carvings around the memorial.
 
A memorial to all veterans and to GLBT veterans specifically was dedicated  2000 at Phoenix at the national cemetery there.  The memorial was sponsored and funded by the Arizona Rainbow Veterans, an affiliate of GLBVA.
 
In 2001 Denver was again the site of the national convention with the theme “Raising the Colors of Our Inclusion.” Dr Aaron Belkin, from the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM) at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was the featured speaker.  Author Patricia Nell Warren spoke at the banquet.
 
Elected officers included James Donovan, Illinois, President, Nancy Russell, Vice President, Jim Darby, Secretary and Mel Tips, Treasurer.
 
The Denver Declaration was prepared and sent out as in the past.
 
An important development in 2001 was the invitation from the Department of the Army to GLBVA to participate in the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day.  Although not the first time GLBVA had done so, this was the first time the group had actually been invited to participate.
 
During the visit to Washington that Memorial Day week, Jim Donovan, Jim Darby and Patrick Bova visited HRC and SLDN to give greetings, thanks and to urge further activism on behalf of gays in the military.  Mark Wolf’s play Another American: Asking and Telling was being performed in Washington at that time and the GLBVA contingent that attended was recognized by the playwright who had interviewed many of its members for his play.
 
On May 27, 2001, AMVETS Post 66 of Palm Springs, CA dedicated the first ever Memorial in Honor of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Veterans at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, CA.  Local members of GLBVA cooperated in this endeavor.
 
In 2002 at the national Convention in San Diego delegates voted to change the name of GLBVA to American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) an acronym which also has intrinsic meaning.
 
Mrs, Dorothy Hadjys-Holman was the featured speaker at this meeting and GLBVA’s participation in the Veterans History Project was discussed and interviews were taken for the project  during the meeting.
 
Also reported on was a project to establish a National Veterans Memorial at the Congressional  Cemetery in Washington, DC.
 
In honor of Veterans Day in 2002 HRC, SLDN and AVER joined to recognize GLBT veterans through the “Documenting Courage: Veterans Speak Out” project.  The project showcases GLBT veterans through the HRC web site.
 
And for the first time ever AVER national officers voted to send $1,000 seed money for use by the organizers of the next convention.  All past conventions had been supported by registration fees and donations, and all made a profit, although small.
 
And all previous conventions included a formal dinner and awards ceremony.  At San Diego the  Military Ball was introduced as part of the convention, and was extremely successful.
 
The national convention for 2003 was held in San Antonio where Nancy Russell was elected President; she had previously served as President and Vice President.  The new Vice President was Alan Rogue, Colorado, Ben Gomez, California,  Secretary and Hank Thomas, Washington, DC, Treasurer.
 
An attempt was made to get General Robert T. Clark, the former commander of Fort Campbell in Kentucky, where Barry Winchell was clubbed to death, to speak but he declined to do so.
 
However, Barry Winchell’s Parents, Patricia and Wally Kutteles, did speak at the meeting.
 
The San Antonio Proclamation was created and sent out as usual.
 
In June, 2003 a number of AVER members took part in the SLDN Lobby Days in Washington, DC in an effort to educate their congressional representatives about DADT and the ban,
 
LTC Steve Loomis, President of the Albuquerque chapter, who had been discharged for being gay just days before retirement, appeared in the CBS television news program 60 Minutes, He had just filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals challenging DADT’s constitutionality and to reverse his discharge.
 
This very successful convention followed the tradition set down by San Diego by staging a Military Ball to end the meeting.
 
In 2004 it was decided to hold the AVER convention in Washington, DC in conjunction with SLDN’s annual Lobby Days at the end of May.
 
President Russell authorized $5,000 in seed money to the 2004 Washington, DC convention to ensure its success.
 
The convention was successful with a good number of top brass and celebrities attending including David Mixner, Campaign for Military Service, Urvashi Vaid, former Director of NGLTF, RADM Alan M. Steinman (ret), BG Virgil Richard, USA (ret) and BG Keith H. Kerr, CSMB (ret) and many more.
 
The convention was followed by two days of training and lobbying with SLDN. Oral histories as part of the Veterans History Project were taken just as had been done as the San Diego meetings.
 
The 2005 convention held in West Hollywood was named Operation Lift the Ban.  National officers elected were Alan Rogue, President, Denver,  David Guy-Gainer, Vice President, Texas, Ben Gomez, Secretary, California  and Laura Ballard, Treasurer, Washington, DC.
 
Some 2005 highlights were: an evening with “Meet the Authors” of works written for or by GLBT veterans, the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, a showing of Sis: The Perry Watkins Story, a Memorial Service at the West Hollywood Veterans Memorial, a Military Ball and Awards Banquet and the grand finale –  a 4th of July Extravaganza at the famous Hollywood Bowl.
 
On the DADT front, Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA) introduced HB 1246, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA), designed  to overturn DADT.  He soon had 52 cosponsors in the US House of Representatives.
 
The Chicago Chapter continued to hold memorial services at Alan Schindler’s grave in Steger, IL on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  Mrs Hadjys-Holman, his mother, attended each time.
 
AVER’s new web- site was launched by Marie Bohusch, President of NEOAVER (Cleveland)..
 
In 2006 AVER Chicago set up a welcoming table for national and international gay veterans at the Gay Games VI, held in Chicago in August.
 
A great friend of gays and gay veterans, Congressman Gary Studds passed on.  An early supporter of GLBT veterans, Congressman Studds  had opened his office to gay veterans during the 1993  March on Washington.
 
In 2007, reflecting a changing attitude toward the gay ban, General Shalikashvili, and former Secretary of Defense Cohen call for an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
 
The 2007 national convention was held in Cleveland – the theme was Operation Lift the Ban V-in April and hosted by the NEOAVER Chapter.  Dr. Frank Kameny, Washington, DC, was the major speaker.  Officers elected were Jim Donovan, President, IL,  Ray Allen, Vice President, CA,  Marie Bohusch, Secretary, OH and Mark LaFontaine, Treasurer, FL.
 
The Chicago Chapter of AVER was inducted into the City of Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
 
Congressman Mary Meehan retires and Congresswoman Elaine Tauscher (D-CA) assumes the lead on MREA with 144 cosponsors.
 
In 2008 more than 100 retired general and admirals call for the end of DADT.  The new Congress has over 130 cosponsors of MREA and President Obama appears ready to sign legislation that repeals the ban on gays serving openly in the United State Armed Forces.

****************************
 

Thanks to a long, illustrious list of dedicated members, AVER is still going strong, continuing to fight for equal rights for not only GLBT veterans, but for all veterans.
 
Obviously there is too much information to share here.  Please note that the National web site is www.aver.us.  There are also many chapter web sites linked to the National site.  AVER publishes a newsletter, The Forward Observer. Local chapters publish their own newsletters.

----------------------------------------


James Darby aboard
 the U.S.S. Midway 1952

This brief summary of the history of GLBVA/AVER is by no means complete.  This is an ongoing project, and continuing research will be providing further updates.
 
Since the Baltimore Conference in 1992, film, videotapes and photographs have been taken at all meetings, conferences and conventions. of GLBVA/AVER and are presently stored in Chicago.
 
Patrick Bova & James C. Darby, National Archivists for GLBVA/AVER - April 2009.

  2009  Gay Military Signal