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Memorial Day Memories

by Denny Meyer

At the nexus of Memorial Day and the start of Pride month, I generally get a bunch of invitations to participate in various events.  First, I was invited to participate in a 'gay military pride' table in the main lobby hallway of a local VA hospital.  The idea was to increase awareness (and acceptance if not affirmation) and let our vets know that the VA serves "all who served."  Okay, so I brought along brochures for the two LGBT veterans groups I volunteer with, a flyer promoting this website, I planted a desktop rainbow flag on a little stand in the middle of the table, and wore my gay veteran's garrison cap with a big pink triangle on the front.  It couldn't have been more obvious what the table display was all about.  The old vets, who spend at lest one or two days a week at the VA, are used to hallway tables and displays on things like Coronary Artery Disease awareness, nutrition, and similar exciting topics.  First they scan the tables for freebees like pens or candy.  Then they briefly look at the brochures and walk away in boredom.  I cynically expected nothing more than that.

Roughly a hundred grumpy old straight vets paused at the table over the course of 3 hours, looked over the display, and crinkled their eyes in confusion and lack of comprehension as they tried to figure out what it was about.  Most didn't seem to have a clue what the rainbow stuff symbolized, vaguely assuming it must be some obscure military insignia.  Giving up, most shrugged, grunted, and walked away figuring it must be about something like 'diabetes awareness' or hemorrhoids, homosexuals, or something like that.  One guy got it right away and walked away cursing and muttering homophobic insults.  One single old gay vet in a motorized wheelchair scooter was glad to see us and took one of each brochure.  That made it worth the whole effort of course.  Still, it was sort of like banging my head against a wall, it was a relief when I could pack up the display and leave.

Next, I was invited to come, as a vet, to a Memorial Day civic ceremony at an old local cemetery with graves dating back to the Civil War.  American flags were planted, by local scouts, on the graves of WWI vets, there was a youth choir singing God Bless America, and a few brief speeches by local civic leaders.  Again, I wore my gay vets garrison cap with the big pink triangle on the front flap.  Well, there were a lot of events this Memorial Day weekend, so it turned out that I was the Only vet at this event.  All the civic leaders wanted their photo taken with 'the old veteran.'  No one seemed to notice the pink triangle, assuming it was some obscure military insignia.  I didn't want to spoil their somber civic ebullience by announcing my rights orientation issues; so I said nothing as they happily had their photos taken with me, 'The Vet.'  Sigh.

All of that made me again think about my own personal gay military heroes who inspired me and must be remembered and not forgotten during this Memorial Day and Pride month.

World War II

PFC Frank Kameny, USA
1925 - 2011

Franklin Kameny, PhD, served in combat in Europe as a teenager in WWII.  He earned a doctorate degree in astronomy at Harvard.  In 1957 he was fired from a government job when he was found to be homosexual.  He spent the next 50 years fighting for gay rights.

Korean Era
LTJG Harvey Milk, USN
1930 - 1978

Harvey Milk served in the US Navy aboard a submarine and in San Diego during the Korean War Era. Later, in NYC he worked on Wall St.  He was assassinated after having been the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco and CA, courageously leading the fight for our rights.

TechSgt Leonard Matlovich, USAF
1943 - 1988

Leonard Matlovich served 12 sterling years in the Air Force, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his courage and valor in Vietnam.  He sacrificed his career for our freedom when he came out publicly in a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force in 1974.  He was discharged, sued and eventually won.  He died of AIDS in 1988.  His gravestone at the Congressional Cemetery is inscribed, "A Gay Vietnam Veteran.  When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one."

CPL Andrew Wilfahrt, USA
1980- 2011

Andrew Wilfahrt sacrificed his freedom, and ultimately his life, in order to give meaning and purpose to his life as a gay American.  He never hide who he was, not from his family, not from his fellow troops.  Killed while on foot patrol outside Kandahar, he is the first 'known' gay casualty of Operation Enduring Freedom.

There are so many others, known and unknown, for us to remember in this Pride Month as we celebrate the freedom we have gained and dedicate ourselves to demanding full equality.

My first military hero wasn't gay.  He was my personal hero long before I'd ever heard of those mentioned above.  His famous words inspired me to volunteer to serve for a decade, despite being gay: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  Those words still inspire me today.

USN LT John F Kenndy, WWII
As Commander of PT 109 in the South Pacific,
fought the pain of a back injury and exhaustion
to assure the rescue of his marooned crew.
35th President of the United States of America.

-Denny Meyer, fmr SFC USAR

2017 GayMilitarySignal