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Reflections on
Memorial Day
and Pride Month 2014

By Tony Smith

The time between Memorial Day and 4th of July holidays are major book-ends for what has become a full month of June many recognize as LGBT Pride Month.  This year, those two holidays for me personally, and for many other friends and loved ones, highlighted both how far we’ve come in this country for LGBT civil rights, the sacrifices made, and the work yet to be done.

It began on May 26, 2014 Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery.  For many years the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) has participated in the annual Memorial Day events in Arlington Cemetery with placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns alongside many other Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs).  During the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) the name of that sacred ground, Tomb of the Unknowns, took on another meaning for me.  I thought of the thousands of unknown LGBT service members across those rolling verdant Virginia hills of Arlington Cemetery who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to country but were really unknown in life because they couldn’t share their whole identity for fear of being discharged. I thought of my friend Major Alan Rogers, USA, buried in section 60 and his sacrifice on the battlefield in Iraq.

Just before and after the repeal of DADT, the AVER participation in the annual event faltered due to event coordinator changes, folks moving out of the area, and many other reasons and conflicting priorities.  A couple years ago, I reached out to the AVER National leadership and coalition partner Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC) and offered to restart the tradition because for me and many others, this was one annual event we should never let slip away.  For me and other veterans participation in the Memorial Day events at Arlington Cemetery is a unique and moving tribute and opportunity to pay our respects and give thanks for ALL of those who have served and sacrificed including our LGBT brothers and sisters in arms.  And with DADT repealed, I felt it was even more important to stand up and participate.

I’ve personally participated in placing wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns as well as carrying a flag in the processional inside the Amphitheater with the President of the United States as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior government leadership in attendance.  It is an indescribably moving, emotional, humbling, and rewarding experience, and one that I now try to share and create the opportunity for other special guests and volunteers, active duty, LGBT spouses/partners, veterans, and others in our military family.

This year in 2014 it was a pleasure and honor to have both new military veterans/retirees and active duty service members along with spouses to participate in the wreath laying as well as the amphitheater flag procession.  As happens each year, they were often approached by other veterans and military members and families to thank them for their service and welcome them to the event as part of the broader military family.  BG Tammy Smith USAR, and COL Kirk Phillips USAF, and his husband Rob Arrington placed the wreath at the Tomb on behalf of American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) and Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC).  Several other active duty members carried the flags into the amphitheater, including the rainbow flag.

Whenever I witness this event it reminds me that we have come a long way since the days of DADT and previous bans on open LGBT service.  I hope to continue this tradition for many more years to come and share it with more volunteers.  It is an opportunity to honor All those who served and give a voice and visibility to the thousands of LGBT unknowns in Arlington Cemetery and beyond who don’t have to remain unknown anymore.

Fast forward to the end of Pride Month in June, on the 25th of June my partner Ryan Choi, a South Korean immigrant, took his oath for U.S. citizenship and registered to vote.  I stood alongside him as his proud partner and fiancé and we hope to be married legally soon.  I know that Ryan loves this country and as a new citizen will serve it well.  As a young gay man when I joined the Air Force I would never have thought I’d see the day where we can serve openly in the U.S. Military and also legally marry.

Shortly after his citizenship oath I was invited as the guest speaker at the first ever Department of Defense (DoD) Pride Event at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.  It was an honor and pleasure to travel to Portsmouth Virginia to speak during the event.  Once I arrived there, I talked with several of the sailors and the Chief who was the senior enlisted sponsor for the event.  They were excited to have the event taking place on June 30th, the last day of Pride Month especially since several challenges throughout the Command had caused it to be delayed and rescheduled multiple times.  Despite some opposition and challenges they had with the event, it was held as scheduled and those pioneering sailors made a little bit of history.  For them it may not have seemed like a major event, but for those in the room and the thousands of LGBT sailors and staff yet to come through that hospital it was an important milestone.

One thing did stand out at the event though. Even with all of the progress we’ve made on LGBT civil rights, especially regarding open military service, their still remains barriers for our Transgender service members, career/promotion risks in some Commands for not only LGBT service members but our straight allies as well.  As I spoke that day and looked out in the audience I could see the work still to be done through the faces of those present.  They were happy we’ve come this far, yet also know we have work still to do.

On a unseasonably cool July summer evening my partner Ryan and I decided to go down to the Mall under the shadow of the Washington Monument and watch the Fourth of July Fireworks for the first time for him as a new U.S. citizen.  As I looked around us in the twilight at the other couples and families and friends gathered on blankets and lawn chairs awaiting the fireworks, I noticed the diversity, including LGBT couples, and how we all were gathered to celebrate the birthday of this great nation, a nation built on immigrants, built on diversity.  We were all there as one, and that moment for me was a relevant bookend to the events that started on Memorial Day.  Highlighting how as a nation and a military family we all come together in our common, shared reflection to honor and celebrate that which binds us while at the same time respecting and recognizing the diversity that gives us strength.  We look back and celebrate what we have accomplished and honor those who served and sacrificed.  While we also roll up our sleeves and press forward together for the work still to be done. 

Photos by Tracy Hepner, MPFC

©2014 GayMilitarySignal