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 Conference Report:

Gay and Lesbian Legal Advocacy
Conference on Don't Ask Don't Tell

by Denny Meyer

-Four Vets Talk about Pride and Career Sacrifice-

On March 2nd and 3rd, 2007, at Harvard, HLS Lambda presented a prestigious DADT conference of leading legal scholars, experts, spokespersons, and veterans.  Six panels presented aspects of the issue including public policy, legal considerations, service members' experiences, and permutations  of minority inequality in the military.

Speakers included Joseph Steffan (USNA disch. due to homosexuality, author of Honor Bound: a Gay American Fights for the Right to Serve His Country), Lawrence Korb, Dixon Osburn (E.D. and cofounder of SLDN, GALLA 2nd Annual Leadership Award), Tim Bakken (Prof. of Law West Point), Susan Sommer (Sr. Counsel NY Lambda Legal), Laurence Tribe (Univ. Professor Harvard, 115 books, 34 cases US Supreme Court), Sharon Alexander (SLDN Deputy Dir. for Policy, former Capt. USAR), Joan Darrah (Capt. USN, ret.), Brian Frickie (former Sgt USMC, Iraq vet), Elizabeth Hillman (USAF vet), Joe Lopez (former Capt. US Army, Blackhawk Helicopter Platoon Leader -Iraq), and Lory Manning (Capt. USN, ret.), among others.

I was both an observer and panel participant (on public policy) at the conference.  I spoke about the history of gays in the military, and the different experiences of those who served in invisible silence during the Vietnam Era compared with current era service members who have never lived in the closet coping with the military's intense official homophobia.

The conference panel on Service Member Experiences was the most moving and memorable for many attendees.   Summaries of the stories they told follow in the paragraphs below.

Joan Darrah, Capt. USN, ret., who entered the US Navy in 1973, spoke of the challenge of having been the first woman in many of her military assignments, such as Intelligence Officer.  Prior to her having excelled in such positions, the reasons given for why a woman could not fill them were nearly identical to those being given now for why gays may not serve in our armed forces.  In the early 1990s, under President Clinton, the issue of gays in the military came to the fore, leaving her coping with the discomfort of dealing with discrimination.  One episode has remained permanently painful in her memory: an admiral praised her outstanding job performance just prior
to a meeting of senior officers in which he said, "We have no room for gays in the Military." While she focused on her work and the love and support of her partner, friends, and family, since that moment she suffered having had live in fear of being Outed.  On September 11th, 2001, she had attended a meeting in the section of the Pentagon that was destroyed in the terrorist attack moments after she left the building.  She subsequently realized that had she been killed in the attack, her life partner would not have been notified nor have any standing or recognition as a surviving spouse.  Shortly thereafter she decided to retire from the Navy that had been her life career.  She has since devoted herself to speaking out against DADT in order to "fix her beloved Navy."
Elizabeth Hillman joined the Air Force ROTC for the scholarship funds that enabled her to attend college.  In her career as an Air Force officer she served in the Pentagon and was involved in Space Ops, and loved the experience of leadership and camaraderie of military life.  While teaching history at the Air Force Academy, she met many highly motivated cadets whose greatest fear, under DADT, was being outed in the atmosphere of intense scrutiny in which they lived at the academy.  Post posters stressing 'Integrity' amongst cadets, only created greater stress for those forced to hide their sexuality.  Ultimately, she herself left the Air Force, without explanation,
rather than continue the required deception.  She believes that, while war has made minorities a crucial resource for our armed forces, the military's hierarchical structure intensifies a fear of disrespect with regards to homosexual service.
Joe Lopez went to West Point in order to become a leader.  In flight school, he finished second in his class with three helicopter qualifications. In Iraq, Captain Lopez was a Blackhawk Helicopter Platoon Leader and was awarded an Air Medal and Army Commendation Medal.  He led a difficult double life, however.  On weekends he had to part ways with his military friends in order to have his separate life with gay friends and dates.  In Iraq, a combat zone, that was impossible, of course.  He was unable to engage in the personal talk amongst peers, and at times cried both from loneliness and fear of outing, wishing that he could share the letters from his lover with his mates.  He lived, he said, in a climate of constant fear, not knowing whom to trust, fearing dishonor for living a lie.  During a mortar attack in Iraq, while everyone else was taking cover, his first
thought was to hide his letters from his lover lest they be discovered.  At that moment, he realized how ridiculous his situation was and decided to leave the Army after completing his tour.  Crying, he described how he still prays for the safety of his troops and how awful he feels about not being there with them.  He knows how the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy degrades both individuals and the military.

Marine Corps Sgt. Brian Fricke did not let being gay stop him from following in his grandfather's footsteps in serving his country in uniform.  Although he was open to peers and one of his commanding officers had a policy of not tolerating discrimination, Sgt. Fricke continually consciously experienced the pain of inequality.  When he was being deployed to Iraq, his lover dropped him off and they dared a quick goodbye kiss.  But, he saw others in his unit having normal prolonged goodbyes with their wives; and knowing that he could not do that, he felt deprived. It made him feel like a deceptive outsider from his fellow Marines in 
his unit. Although he came out to friends in Iraq and was accepted, there was the constant fear of loss of honor; and a fear that if he died in combat, his lover would not receive the respect he deserved for his sacrifice and loss.  Upon his unit's return to the US from Iraq, there was a huge ceremony with flags and crowds of family to greet their loved one's safe return.  His lover, of course, could not be there and be a part of that.  And that moment of deprivation due to DADT made Sgt. Fricke feel like an outcast, and for him the joyous welcoming home ceremony was empty and sad.  Sgt Fricke cried as he described that time and his decision not to reenlist under the oppression of the policy that denied him and his lover the same honor and respect that others had.

 These stories of pride and career sacrifice tell of the pointless loss of dignity and service by some of our nation's most highly qualified enlisted personnel and officers, purely to maintain an ideological bigotry that has no place in America's armed forces.