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An Aching Is Soothed

Washington DC
October 10th, 2009


Michael Bedwell
Gay Military Signal Staff Writer

Photo: Bill Wilson

For many who attended, two events in Washington DC on October 10th brought a kind of healing they hadn’t realized they needed. They had come to their nation’s capital in a time-honored tradition of group protest, spurned by both anger and expectation. For many, it would not just be their first protest of such size, but also the first time they would see in person the three-dimensional monuments to the history of their collective birthplace, previously only seen squeezed and flattened out onto TV and movie screens, in textbooks and on postcards. Whatever part of the country they came from, they were now surrounded by the physical manifestations of its core beliefs.

For instance, it’s one thing to grow up hearing the name Lincoln over and over and quite another to climb stairs toward 38 classic Greek columns and first see through them his figure 19-feet high carved majestically out of white marble. It is to feel at once that every legend about him is true, that it is possible for goodness and wisdom and indomitable strength to reside in one mere mortal. One is not dwarfed by the experience but inspired, even comforted despite the fact that outside that temple the world seems even more irrevocably divided, more insanely violent than when he held the Union together through will and war while breaking the chains that bound.

But the healing I’m thinking of didn’t take place there.

What healing? Because we grow up internalizing the belief that LGBTs are somehow “other,” because we continue to be legally, in most places and most ways, a kind of second class citizen, many of us often feel disconnected, looking in on what it means to be “American,” our sense of self pressed up against the windowpane of patriotism. Whether it’s a cheery chorus singing, “This is MY country, to have and to hold,” a city billy belting his solipsistic, “I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free,” or the more traditional anthems with their lyrics about “sweet land of liberty,” “Freedom’s holy light," and “liberty in law,” within some they can simultaneously resonate and raise the question, “When does Freedom ring for us?”

The sky, while cloudy, was both beautiful and spacious over the 300,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery around 11 a.m. that Saturday, including those of its three best known residents, the Kennedy brothers, the sod of the most recent not yet blending with the grass around it. Like religious pilgrims, a constant stream of people wound up a slow hill, where, next to the Memorial Amphitheater whose cornerstone contains a Bible, copies of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, a 48-star American flag, and an autographed photo of President Woodrow Wilson, Lt. Dan Choi, cofounder of Knights Out, the organization of gay West Point graduates, retired Navy Capt. Mike Rankin, and I were stopped by a civilian security guard; not for any unintended offense, but out of unexpected admiration. He recognized Dan from seeing him on television a few nights before and wanted to shake his hand. After congratulating Dan on outing himself to fight Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, laughing about his having challenged the clueless Elaine Donnelly in Arabic, we were told the Office of the Sergeant of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was just a few yards more. There, we delivered the wreath to be later presented as previously instructed, and Dan stepped into the nearby restroom to change into his dress blues, Mike already wearing his.

Further along, on its own small plaza in front of the Amphitheater, was the Tomb itself, a large, white marble sarcophagus, the side overlooking the nation’s capital below bearing figures of Peace, Victory, and Valor. Though the opposite side reads, "HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD," there are three crypts in front of it as echoed in the memorial's other colloquial name, the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The unknown from the first World War rests beneath the sarcophagus. One crypt in front of it holds the unknown from World War II, and another that from the Korean War. The third crypt is now empty, as it has been decided it will remain after its former occupant, who died in Vietnam, was identified through DNA and reburied in St. Louis 15 yrs. after internment here.

At noon sharp, there was a classic changing of the Honor Guard who protect the Tomb 24-hours a day, every day of the year. Assignment to the Guard, all noncommissioned officers, is a coveted one in the Army, and 80% of those who apply are rejected. They are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment or “Old Guard,” the oldest active infantry unit, known as the “Face of the Army, representing it in ceremonies at home and around the world, instructed by an Act of Congress to march with fixed bayonets. They are also the “Escort[s] to the President.”

As at other such ceremonies around the world, the change is one most find fascinating for its precision and discipline. At Arlington, members of the three shifts, or Reliefs, of Guards are even matched for height. The viewing area was packed, multiple languages were heard, and one scanned the crowd to try to determine how many LGBTs had come for our 12:15 appointment.

Photo: Bill Wilson

A light rain was falling by the time Dan, Mike, and former Army Major Andrea Hollen and former Army Lt. Anthony Woods, the two others of the maximum of four allowed in the official party, joined the Guard Host at the top of the stairs outside the Memorial Display Room. Together, they made up a cross section of the gay community about as well as any four people alone could. Asian, Caucasian, African-American, Jew, Baptist, male, female. Andrea was among the first women to graduate from West Point and a Rhodes Scholar; Dan and Anthony, Iraq veterans. Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran Mike served more years in the Navy than Dan has lived.

Yet it was what they had in common that brought the many LGBT spectators here. It was what led a gay high school ROTC student to drive all the way from New York. It was as victims of bigotry shared by the four descending the stairs in their community’s name. Mike had been forced to serve in silence for three decades before retiring. Andrea gave up her Army career rather than continue to do the same. Anthony was kicked to the curb under DADT last year after outing himself, and Dan is in the process of being discharged now.

Photo: Bill Wilson

But it was larger than that. One doesn’t have to be entirely free to honor those who died for freedom, to know that some of them were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. As Dan has said, most of our servicemembers have always been “unknown.” And this was one of those days on which we would not be denied our right to express our gratitude for all who fell for Liberty even as legally we remain second class citizens. Victims, yes, but it was the valor of the truth about ourselves we would no longer deny. So when within the overall solemn silence that pervades the ceremony the Sentinel announced that this wreath was being presented by “Knights Out-LGBT” and that those in uniform should salute and everyone else place their hands over their hearts while Dan’s and Mike’s hands jointly placed the wreath before the Tomb, many teared up as Taps played, feeling a kind of pride they’d never experienced before. And for the first time joined the words “gay” and “American.” Were those the sounds of countless camera shutters I heard . . . or a symphony of faster beating hearts?

Afterward, the four were swarmed by those wishing to take their picture or simply shake their hands and say thank you. A video of the complete ceremony can be viewed at


It reminded me of that day in 2003 when the US Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws. In San Francisco, the giant, iconic rainbow flag in the Castro was lowered for a time and a giant American flag raised in its place, rippling toward another day yet to come.

Act II: Honoring the Best Known Gay Soldier

L-R: David Mixner, Randy Wicker, Jose Zuniga, Tracy Thorne-Begland, Frank Kameny, Rev. Troy Perry,
Michael Bedwell at podium, Alex Nicholson, Lt. Dan Choi, Capt. Mike Rankin [Ret]; Photo Marta Evry

Two hours later, many of the same attendees and same emotions joined a larger crowd, Dan, Mike, and other activists representing the entire forty-five year history of fighting the military ban, for a DADT protest and memorial for Leonard Matlovich, the first active duty gay service member to challenge his discharge. It was because he knew the standardized gravestone required of all but the most famous interred at Arlington could never be the memorial to all gay veterans he envisioned that Leonard chose Congressional Cemetery, fifty years older but far less known, for his final resting place.

Photo: Elvert Barnes

AVER Chicago President Jim Darby and his partner Patrick Bova provided the flags for the color guard, a large Knights Out banner was displayed, and Potomac Fever, made up of members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, proudly opened the historic event with the National Anthem. Movement pioneer Randy Wicker led the first ever gay rights demonstration in the United States—a protest of the military’s ban on gays in 1964. To this audience spanning college students to retirees he said, “I’ve lived long enough to tell you that this country is worth fighting and dying for.”

Dr. Franklin Kameny and Rev. Troy Perry; Photo: Carly Collins

He was followed by Movement legend, Frank Kameny, declaring that, 66-years later, he is still angry that he had to lie about being gay in order to fight for his country in World War II. He first led protests at the White House and Pentagon in 1965, and his 1973 interview in the Air Force Times inspired Leonard to eventually out himself. He said he believed we were finally close to the “reversal of one of the more disgraceful episodes in our country’s long history.” Leonard’s lead civilian defense attorney at his discharge hearing, David Addlestone, described him as the greatest client he’d had in 45-yrs. of practice. Mike Rankin read a poem dedicated to the memory of all LGBT veterans written by a friend killed in Vietnam.

Former Sixth Army Soldier of the Year Jose Zuniga outed himself during the 1993 gay march on Washington to help the lift the ban struggle under President Clinton.

“In an age in which our history is relegated to dusty bookshelves or buried in Internet archives, it is all too easy to forget the heroes who helped shape in adversity and triumph the world in which we live today.  Leonard Matlovich was just that, a hero who helped shape an important part of our LGBT history. In our culture of celebrity in which ‘courageous’ is an adjective easily bandied about, we must understand the courage it took Leonard to stand up in the mid-1970s and say ‘No!’ to a military that would send him to war and honor him for his bravery but could not condone the idea of his loving a man. . . . Leonard’s life, Leonard’s sacrifice, Leonard’s memory all demand action on our part. Indeed, the final chapter of his life cannot be written while his cause remains unfinished. Nothing we say at this memorial can match what Leonard Matlovich, in so many senses, has done in those sacred moments in which our natural inclination toward self-preservation was supplanted by a burning need to begin that long and arduous climb toward equality. What matters now is what we do, what change we effect, and what future we build for our community.”

Former Navy Lt. and Top Gun Tracy Thorne-Begland, who was discharged twice, under the original ban and DADT, after outing himself on Nightline in 1992, described how every morning at 5 a.m. during basic training his class went on a five-mile run. They were led by someone carrying a guidon whose pennant represented the class and streamers represented all the accomplishments of the unit, and it was passed from person to person as the run progressed.

"I hope when our kids are of age to join the armed forces they will be able to do so regardless of who they choose or who they are born to be." - Tracy Thorne-Begland and son Chance.  Photo: Patsy Lynch
“In our community, in the gay and lesbian military community, that staff, that pennant, and those streamers lay on the ground for decades. Members of the armed forces looked at that staff with that pennant and all of their accomplishments as dedicated heroes and no one picked it up. No one showed the courage. No one until Leonard Matlovich came along. And in 1975, Leonard picked up that staff, he picked up that pennant and he picked up all the streamers that represented the hundreds of years of service of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and he ran with it. Leonard lived a life of truth that represents all of us here today. And when he could run no more with that staff he handed it off to the next man and the next woman; the Keith Meinholds, the Joe Steffans, the Grete Cammermeyers, and the Justin Elzies, and the Dan Chois that are carrying that staff here today. They carry that staff with the tens of thousands of streamers that represent the tens of thousands of lives that have sacrificed for their country and not been recognized for who they are. And those are the individual moments that make up Leonard Matlovich’s and our movement. So as we stand here today on the eve of this great march, we should remember his contribution, we should fight for our rights, we will stand for equality over injustice and we will stand for the truth over bigotry. The lives of the many kids growing up today demand it.”

David Mixner, one of the leaders of the 1993 effort, and the person who first suggested the national march the next day, arrived in a wheelchair, having been in intensive care just weeks before. But he rose to the podium and to the occasion, saying his doctor could not stop him from coming to speak about his friend Leonard whom he described as often having been “a prophet in the wilderness.”

 “Never was I more honored to stand by anyone’s side, nor saw more nobility and dignity than I saw in Leonard. Leonard would want us to fight today and I’m gonna fight. I was and am a strong supporter of our President. I worked very hard for his election. But I did not elect him to follow Congress; I elected him to lead Congress. I didn’t elect him to wait until something is placed on his desk; I elected him to lead us to freedom.” He called for cutting off funding for discharge investigations, and for a stop-loss order.

Photo: Carly Collins

Alex Nicholson, fresh from a cross-country voter education tour, thanked those who’d been fighting the ban for so long, and described how difficult it had been for him to come to terms with his DADT discharge, eventually traveling with his Army veteran partner, Jarrod Chlapowski, to visit Leonard’s grave when they were thinking about creating a new group for Iraq and Afghanistan era gay veterans. The result was Service members United. Now conversant in five languages, he said that whenever DADT is repealed he would be at a recruiting station the morning after.

One of those Alex has mentored spoke next, employing some of the same Arabic he had. Dan Choi was not yet born when Leonard was discharged, but grew up to be oppressed by the same military bigotry, choose to out himself to fight it, and become the current public face of such discrimination—just as Leonard had thirty-four years before. Like Alex, he refused to ever be silent again, and wanted everyone to ask themselves how they would answer if, years from now, someone asked them what they had done.

Those attending had applauded, laughed with, been moved by each of the preceding speakers but the final one summed up the event’s purpose of inspiring action with remembrance with a rip-roaring “sermon.” Metropolitan Community Churches founder Rev. Troy Perry told stories of his own proud Vietnam-era service, the many times he and Leonard had fought together for civil rights, how he was both sweet and courageous. “Whatever we do we cannot stop this struggle! To young people, I say to them, ‘If I die together, keep our struggle going until we win all of our freedoms’!”

After everyone was urged to contact their Congressperson and ask that the DADT repeal bill be named for Leonard Matlovich, they followed Lt. Dan Choi and retired Navy Capt. Mike Rankin as they once again bore a wreath, placing this one on his grave as flags from every military branch saluted in the breeze. It brought to a close two events many will long remember. For they had reminded everyone that no matter whom they love, no matter what the law denies, no matter what bigots take away, they can never take away the fact that we are a people, that we have a history, and that we are Americans, too.

Photo: Carly Collins

More photos and videos at www.leonardmatlovich.com

Editor's note: Michael Bedwell, Gay Military Signal staff writer, was Leonard Matlovich's friend and roommate in both Washington DC and San Francisco. Mr. Bedwell organized the two events described above, and is the creator of www.LeonardMatlovich.com

  2009 Gay Military Signal