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Red State Progress

by

Michael Rankin, M.D.
Capt., MC. USN (Ret.)

Could we be moving rapidly toward justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered peopleóeven in the red states? Even in Virginia, where the anti-gay marriage amendment passed overwhelmingly in November, where gay adoption, civil unions, and domestic partner benefits are anathema to the Republicans who dominate the state Assembly and Senate?

Are attitudes changing faster than we could have dreamed? They just might be, if a panel discussion I attended last week is any indication.

On June 26, I spoke about "Donít Ask Donít Tell" at Greenspring Retirement Community in Springfield, Virginia, south of Arlington.

Iíd been warned by the convener that the other panelist, a retired Navy medical officer like myself, was eager to keep "his Navy" free of homosexuals. Iíd been told to expect a hostile audience with probing questions.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Speaking first, I began with a brief history of the policy, mentioning in particular Virginiaís Senator Warnerís role in sinking Clintonís hope of ending the ban altogether. I talked about the thousands discharged since l993; the thousands who serve nonetheless, in silence; the thousands of veterans who have defended this nation in all the wars from

WW II to Iraq. I personalized it with the story of a young Marine in my unit in Vietnam whoíd been sent for discharge when he slipped a note to a friendly sergeant, suggesting they go on R&R together. He was the mechanical genius who used our primitive communications equipment to bring in helicopters to evacuate our wounded. He saved lives, every day. This didnít protect him from being discharged for being gay. Where was the justice in that?

I finished my remarks and sat down, to polite applause.

The other panelist spoke next. Far from opposing me, he said he agreed with everything I said. The policy was unjust and should be overturned.

We took questions from the audience. These retirees in their 70ís and 80ís, many of them military veterans, agreed that the policy should be ended, and now.. Without exception, they knew of gay and lesbian service members on their ships and in their unitsóthey served proudly with them then, and would again.

When it was almost over, a man stood to express his anger. He had come expecting a debateóbut there was no debate. Everyone, in his opinion, was on the same side. Why had nobody pointed out that men and women in uniform are so attractive that of course gays and lesbians would try to seduce them?

This gave me the opportunity to say again, as I had stressed in my talkóbehavior prohibited to heterosexuals should be prohibited to homosexuals as well. And the punishment for both should be the same.

The question period ended, and several came up to speak in private. One was a woman whose lesbian grand daughter, who was deaf, was excelling at Smith College. She was very proud of her.

Another was angry and apologetic that the moderator had outed me before I spoke. She would give him a piece of her mind. I asked her not to. I told her if he hadnít outed me, Iíd have outed myself.

But the last resident who approached me, will stay longest in my mind. He walked up, took my hand, and said "Iím gay. I am 80 years old and I have never said those words to anyone before. Iím gay."

I was stunned.

This, then, was what it was like to speak of justice on a warm summerís day in red state Virginia. True, this was in Northern Virginia, where voters tend to be more liberal than in other sections of the state. But many of the residents who attended were retired militaryótraditionally more conservative. So perhaps they did reflect a true change of attitude, and if attitudes are changing here, surely they are changing even faster in more progressive parts of the country.

We canít rest from the struggle for full justice for gay people in America, in the military and in civilian life. Much remains to be done. More battles must be fought and won.

But we can perhaps be excused for taking a moment to savor the sweet successes weíve achieved so far.

Maybe, sooner than we realize, America will truly be "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all!"