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From the Editor:
New York, July 4th 2006

Sgt Denny's Rant

What It Means To Be A Gay
American Veteran In 2006

Recently, USA Today asked me for a sound bite on "What it means to be an American in 2006."   Its a fair enough question for a mainstream national daily publication for an Independence Day story; and I thought it was significant that they took the trouble to seek comment from a national gay spokesperson. It got me to thinking 'what it means to be a Gay American Veteran in 2006'; and that led me to consider all my various identities. I am gay, first generation American, a veteran, Jewish, an activist, a cancer survivor, and disabled. The list goes on, and at various times in my life the order of identities shifted and combined in different forms. My perspective is that of a senior citizen (yet another identity). As I progressed through life's stages, I thought of myself as a first generation Jewish American, Judeo-Queer teen, gay, sailor, soldier, sergeant, American veteran, AIDS widower, gay Jew, activist Gay American, cancer victim, cancer survivor, gay disabled senior, and cranky old fart.

It is with all that baggage that I now write, with anger, what it means to be a Gay American Veteran in 2006.

I'm not particularly brave, just stubborn. I came of age in the 1960s, which meant that I rejected anyone telling me what to do. If I was told, "You can't do that." I thought, "The hell I can't!" Quitting the blissful life of a 'gay college student trollop' and joining the US Navy was, in retrospect, not a particularly brilliant decision. But, I did it out of patriotism, at the height of the Vietnam War, as a child of WWII refugees to American Freedom. I thought of it, at the time, as an adventure; it was a sacrifice. It was also the start of a proud ten year, two service, military career. While keeping my mouth shut about homophobic jokes and remarks, I was notorious for speaking up about discrimination against other minorities. I left as a Sergeant First Class so that I could live the freedom that I'd sworn to defend over and over during reenlistments. I was a senior NCO with a lot of responsibility, living with a long term companion, leading a double life; it just didn't seem right anymore, so I resigned without explanation.

Several years later, I met Leonard Matlovitch who was a Vietnam Hero, with 18 years service, Purple Heart, and Bronze Star, who came out publicly and was promptly dishonorably discharged. I saw him first at a gay street festival in San Francisco where he had a booth, running for City Supervisor. I went up to him and told him, "You're my hero!" He asked, "why?" And I said, "Because I served in silence." That tall handsome mustachioed Air Force Staff Sergeant bent down and kissed me. I didn't wash my lips for weeks! Lenny and I became friends because in those days, in that place, gods such as him and Harvey Milk walked the Earth like ordinary mortals and one could simply walk right up and get to know them. While the early gay rights revolution raged, I mostly stayed home with my lover and washed the dishes (even during a revolution, someone has to do the dishes). Meanwhile, Lenny constantly went off to the front lines to do battle by giving speeches and leading parades. It was an incredibly optimistic time with gay rights rising; before AIDS, before the assassination of Harvey Milk. No one imagined what dark clouds loomed just over the horizon. Just a few years later Harvey Milk was murdered inside City Hall; and a few years later, Lenny was one of the first to die of AIDS. Lenny, that incredible funny brave brilliant man, had won his case in court after ten years in the headlines. He wrote his own epitaph, inscribed on his gravestone, between two pink marble triangles, in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC: "A Gay Vietnam Veteran; They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one."

After Harvey Milk's assassin got off with a slap on the wrist, there was a candlelight march and then a riot, the first of many to follow, with battalions of police bashing gay heads with batons. Having hung up my dish washing apron to march with a candle, I fled the riot of blood and burning police cars back into the warm arms of my lover. He reminded me, dryly, that I hadn't finished the dishes. Its all a distant echo now; a decade later he too was gone, a victim of AIDS. Somehow, sadly, I survived and voted for William Jefferson Clinton for President in the early 90s. Clinton had promised to emulate Trueman, who had integrated Black Americans into our armed forces, by allowing Gay patriotic volunteers to serve openly. It didn't happen. Instead a cruel cynical law was enacted. Known as 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' it had the pretense of allowing gay Americans to join and serve provided that they did not ever reveal to anyone that they are gay nor engage in homosexual activity. And for more than a decade, since, thousands of proud brave lesbian and gay volunteers have been discharged simply for being who they are. At the same time, however, gay rights progressed with more and more civil rights legislation in cities and states across America. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, until equality would also be achieved in our armed forces.

And then George Bush became President of the United States of America and proceeded to divide our nation with hatred, using Lesbian and Gay Americans as his political scapegoat. In our armed forces, which are supposedly battling for freedom around the world, official government homophobia is pervasive. Throughout the military, unit moral is ruptured by incessant homophobic suspicion of any and all personnel. After all the progress of the past 40 years of rights activism, today young queer American Patriots are having their lives ruined by regressive ideological bigotry as government policy.

A few days ago, an 18 year old gay man, who had picked up one of our brochures at the local gay center, telephoned me and told me that he'd just signed up to join the United States Marine Corps; he wanted some advice and encouragement from gay veterans who had been through it all and who would understand. And I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I was him so long ago; and at that time no one could tell me that a little queer could not make it in the military.' And now, with what is happening today I want to scream at him, "NO! Don't do it! You'll suffer." What the hell do I tell him?