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Heroes, Pioneers and Trailblazers 2010 Honoree: Mel Merrill

SAN DIEGO -- They make a difference in our lives. Some are well-known activists in San Diego's LGBT community and others are working tirelessly outside the spotlight.

Ten key players in the LGBT community will be honored Feb. 26 at a Heroes, Pioneers and Trailblazers gala at The Center that is sponsored by Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD).

In the days leading up to the gala, SDGLN will profile each of these individuals and provide our readers with an inside peak at what this award means to each honoree.

2010 Honoree Mel Merrill

Mel Merrill was born and raised in San Francisco. He earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in nuclear engineering from Washington University. In 1960, fresh out of graduate school, Merrill was hired by General Atomic and moved to San Diego, where he has remained since.

Living openly since 1970, Merrill first encountered the LGBT community in the men’s rap groups at The Center’s original site on B Street. He became a long-term supporter and donor to The Center, where two rooms today bear his name. In 1980, he partnered with six other community members to form a real estate partnership and purchase the building that became The Center’s second site on 30th Street.

Most of his political activism has been through the San Diego Democratic Club, which he joined in 1977. He served on the board for many years and was involved in the pioneering campaigns for City Council of openly gay candidates Al Best (1979) and Neil Good (1987). The club then worked on getting district elections, and redrawing the boundaries of District 3 to provide a district the LGBT community could win, which Christine Kehoe did in 1993.

Merrill retired in 1986.

At General Atomic, Merrill's job was to design nuclear reactors for utilities, research facilities and outer space.

In 1979, General Atomic made a bid for a government contract that involved a classified program. To work on the project, Merrill was asked to obtain a Secret Level clearance. He assumed a background investigation would turn up his active involvement in the gay community. So with the support of his employer, he listed “gay activist” as a character reference on the government application. Within a month, he was part of an informal hearing and found himself in a private room with a young government employee.

His first question – “Have you ever committed any homosexual acts or perversions?” – was fielded by friend and openly gay attorney Bob Lynn, who would later establish San Diego’s Democratic Club. Lynn said Merrill would not respond to questions referring to his lifestyle as a perversion. From that point forward, the hearing focused on the number of Merrill’s lovers and the countries he had visited.

“I was granted the clearance, [and although] I was active in the LGBT community at the time, I think the brush with the potential damages of discrimination made me more sensitive, more aware and more likely to support the community groups that fight for us,” Merrill said.

In addition to volunteering and donating to political campaigns with the Victory Fund and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Merrill has also served on the boards of United San Diego Elections Committee, a bipartisan LGBT PAC, and the SAGA ski club. He ran the telephone hotline for the San Diego AIDS project. He currently volunteers at the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, where he chairs the Grants Committee.

Merrill says his personal struggle was just another small precedent to the many cases in the fight for equality in the workplace, but a courageous one, nonetheless. “Courage is habit-forming,” he said. “If you find it in one situation, it is easier in the next.”

“I'm honored to be acknowledged by the Archives, which I have supported for many years, and whose founder, Jess Jessop, was a good friend. I hope the event will make new friends for the organization.”

About Lambda Archives of San Diego

LASD’s mission is to collect, preserve and teach the history of LGBT people in the San Diego and Northern Baja California region. Although most of the collections date to post-1970, there are original materials dating back to the 1930s.

LASD believes that history is best served by the records and cultural artifacts of those people who are directly involved in its events, so its staff has dedicated itself to preserving and interpreting this important historical record since its establishment in 1987. LASD is an all-volunteer, nonprofit corporation governed by a volunteer board of directors and has one of the largest collections of LGBT history in the country.

LASD Honoree Selection Process

The fundraising gala -- which debuted in 2007 -- recognizes individuals, both locally and nationally, who have made a difference in the lives of LGBT persons through their dedication, commitment, financial resources and/or political participation.

The LASD board chooses honorees based on a criterion that focuses on diversity, by including individuals from diverse segments of the community and from a broad spectrum of individual characteristics such as ethnicity, race, LGBT identification, etc. As is customary for the board, nominees who had received other major honors this year or who could not attend the event were held out for future consideration. Although no public call for nominations currently exists, the board considers any nomination from the community to be equal to those made by its members.

Previous honorees include business professionals, activists and people like state Sen. Christine Kehoe, Cleve Jones, Tom Reise, Fritz Klein and SDGLN contributor Ben Cartwright.

For information about purchasing tickets to the 2010 Gala visit SDGLN's Events Calendar.