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The Dream Chronicles

During August's 50th Anniversary commemorations of the "I have a dream" speech by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Americans were challenged to write their own 'I have a dream' statements about equality.  Dr. King's words inspired people across America and around the world to imagine and aspire to freedom.  The modern gay rights movement began at about the same time with Dr. Frank Kameny and others having the courage to speak out and demand equality.  Some of us are old enough to have our own direct memories of those dangerous and heady days of the early 1960s, while others, born later, have been inspired to step forward and continue to challenge discrimination in all its forms.

President Obama was just two years old during the time of Dr. King's March on Washington, organized by Bayard Rustin - a gay man; yet Barack Obama has become the most prominent beneficiary and exemplar of freedom's progress begun by the 'I have a dream' speech.  He has hardly taken that for granted, having become the free world's most outspoken advocate of gay rights and the 'right to serve' movement in our armed forces, and the right to marry in our nation.

My own 'dream of freedom' began a few years before the famed speech and march, in 1960 when I was 13 and had the reckless urge to participate in a local picket line boycott demonstration organized by C.O.R.E.  My inspiration came from my parents, perhaps unintentionally, who had been refugees fleeing for their lives from Nazi Germany.  They raised me to believe that, "There is nothing more precious than American Freedom."  And so, without asking for permission one late summer day, I got on my Schwinn bicycle and, along with my friend Deik, rode to the next suburban county to join a march.  I came home covered in blood because I'd been hit in the head by a rock thrown by a white bigot outraged that a four foot tall white boy would dare to march with Blacks.

In the moments before the rock hit my head, I was filled with boyish dreams that my actions might make a difference in advancing equality, because I believed that reasonable people simply needed to be made aware of injustice.  The rock was a jolt of reality of the realist kind; "its not all that simple," I suddenly realized in the moments afterwards.

Perhaps I was a brave little boy; I didn't cry; I got angry!  Fifty three years later, I'm still angry.  I was determined to keep speaking up.  My mother worried of course, but she knew that I was doing what she'd raised me to do, even if perhaps it was not quite what she'd had in mind.    Decades later, on the night that Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States of America, I cried, along with so many others.  By then I knew that the battle for equality was far from over.  It wasn't the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning perhaps (to paraphrase Churchill).  On that night in 2008, my own freedom as a gay man was still a dream.  I had served my country in silence for ten years during and after Vietnam, not being allowed to to marry nor serve openly in pride.  Now, ever so recently, all that is possible due in no small part to the advocacy of our President.

A few years after the rock hit my head, and a year after Dr. King gave his lastingly inspiring speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I came out to myself and a friend at the 1964 World's Fair.  The dream of gay freedom didn't occur to me at the time.  It was quite unthinkable, even though that same year Dr. Kameny was launching his first march, in Washington, for our rights.  I told my best friend Deik what I'd discovered about myself.  He did not react well; he rejected me in great disgust and told everyone in school that I was "a queer."

Four years later, in 1968, I volunteered to serve my country, out of raw patriotism.  Meanwhile, my former friend Deik had run off to Canada to avoid being drafted to serve in Vietnam; he remains there, as a conscientious objector, to this day.  To avoid serving, other straight friends lied and said they were gay.  I lied and said I was straight so I could serve.  My fellow college students were protesting the war in Vietnam on campuses across the nation.  I was mostly neutral about all that.  But, when I saw them burn the American flag, that pissed me off!  In another moment of impulsive inspiration, I volunteered to serve.  In retrospect, it might not have been such a good idea.  It wasn't easy, after all.  My mother had been horrified; first I'd joined dangerous demonstrations, and now I was going off to war!  But, when I came home from boot camp, resplendent in my uniform, square jawed and chest out, she nearly burst with pride.  To this day, nearly fifty years later, I remain deeply proud of having served my country.  After ten years of service, I left honorably as a Sgt First Class; not too shabby for a nerdy little gay boy!  Had I not had to spend every single day worried about hiding who I was, I might have stayed and served a full twenty years.  My dream, now, is that none of us will ever have to worry again that their patriotism is not desired by our nation.

Like more than a million living LGBT veterans who have served our nation since WWII, I dared to dream that I could serve in pride.  Where would we be had we not done so?  Would we have the freedoms we are now just beginning to gain?  Dr. King proved that just one man's dream can go a long way!  My dream, my wish, is that we never forget to dare to dream of and demand freedom.

Gay Military Signal welcomes the stories of LGBT veterans.

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