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Veterans Lobby Day on DADT profile: Evelyn Thomas, U.S. Marine Corps

Editor's note: This weekend, seven local veterans - all touched by DADT - were selected to travel to Washington, to prep for the face-to-face opportunity to tell their stories to Congress on Veterans Lobby Day on DADT, May 11. SDGLN is profiling each of these veterans on a different day of the week leading up to and including Tuesday, May 11, so our readers can also hear their stories.

Evelyn Thomas made headlines last month when she, Lt. Dan Choi and four other veterans were arrested after they handcuffed themselves to the White House fence in protest against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT)," the Department of Defense policy that denies gays the right to serve in the Armed Forces.

Thomas, a schoolteacher currently living in Oceanside, was tapped this week by HRC San Diego to return to Washington; this time, to tell her story to members of Congress face to face - not silently from a television screen.

She is a very unassuming woman over the phone, almost meek. However, what lies behind that facade is a powerful will and a staggering determination that will no doubt one day put her name into the history books; and not just for chaining herself to a fence.

This is Thomas' courageous story, in her own words.

On April 21, 2010, at about 3 o’clock in the morning, when some people are sleeping in a nice warm bed under covers getting a good night’s rest, I was in my jail cell watching a roach crawl along the wall praying it would not reach my bunk.

I asked myself, “Why am I doing this, what is the purpose?”

It had been several hours since I had handcuffed myself to the fence of the White House.

Then I remembered the young men and women that committed acts of civil disobedience to protest segregation in the South. That was during a time in this country in which as a Black woman, it was illegal for me to own a library card; it was illegal for me to enter a public facility, it was illegal for me to vote, or as a gay person in the state of California, it was illegal for me to become a teacher.

It was people like Diane Judith Nash and Harvey Milk that fought the good fight so that I could become a candidate of the Democratic Party for San Diego's 74th assembly district and an educator with the Oceanside Unified School District.

These courageous and brave people met the challenges and fought the necessary battles, so I did not have to. It is my responsibility to fight for this and the next generation of LGBT people that wish to serve our country. When I stood at attention handcuffed to the fence of the White House, it was not for me. It was for the young men and women that wish to proudly serve their country in dignity and in their true essence.

It was an act of civil disobedience to protest the DADT policy. The goal of the protest is to demand the repeal language for DADT be written into the Defense Authorization Bill. I was requested to participate for two reasons: (1) to bring awareness and attention to the LGBT and Black community that the largest percentage of people impacted by DADT are women of color, and, (2) my advocacy work with The Sanctuary Project. It is a ministry I established in October 2009 to advocate for active-duty service members and veterans impacted by DADT.

At 17, out of the basic need to survive my personal hell, I enlisted in the Armed Forces. Little did I know, 20 years later, I would establish The Sanctuary Project and handcuff myself to the gates of the White House demanding equality and social justice for LGBT service members.

My only thought at that tender age of 17, was leaving Texas and moving to California; the land of freedom. All my young life, all I heard was that California was the place of “Freaks and Queers.” Every time I heard that statement my drive and desire to live in California became stronger; it became a matter of survival.

If you’re not from Texas, then you probably will not understand this statement, “Texas is like living on another planet, their way of thinking is backwards.”

I remember in high school, a boy was suspended for wearing an earring. I could not live in my true essence, as an African-American gay person with all this love to give. I had to leave. At the time, my only choice was to enlist in the Armed Forces. It was a matter of survival.

Anytime someone has asked me the question, Why did you join the military? my programmed response always was, “I enlisted in the military because it allowed me to earn money to attend college."

I enlisted under the Montgomery G.I. Bill. If I dedicated 6 years of my life to the military, then the government would help me pay for college. I came from a very poor family. We were on government assistance, called AFDC [food stamps and monthly stipend], government cheese, etc. We were so poor, my mom sometimes did not have enough money to pay the light bill. I spent many nights in the dark.

I had the grades. I was an honor roll student, but my counselors did not talk with me about scholarships or student loans. In Texas, it is God, Country and Football, and if you did not meet that criterion, you did not receive any advice or assistance about attending college.

Man was I in denial. The truth is, I enlisted in the military because I heard that only lesbians were in the Army. I wanted to meet other lesbians and leave my homophobic environment.

At 17, I joined the Army National Guard. It was a matter of survival for me. I had to leave home in order to live in my true essence as a gay person. If I stayed home in that destructive environment, I literally would not have survived.

I enlisted prior to the enactment of the DADT policy. This was during time when the federal government had the right to ask, are you a homosexual? and have you ever participated in homosexual activity?

These two questions were the mental examination to enter the Armed Forces. Remember, it was a matter of survival for me; if I responded with an honest answer - there goes my chances of joining the military; I would go back to the homophobic environment.

So I lied to join the military. It gave me the opportunity to start a new and different life; I could reinvent myself. I had to sign an official document stating that “I was not a homosexual and never participated in a homosexual activity,” and it became apart of my military record. I passed the mental exam; as a result I was sworn-in for the Armed Forces.

A month later, I was shipped-off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After my initial training, I was shipped to Fort Lee Virginia, to train to become a supply clerk. About a month after my arrival, my company went to an event in which The President’s Own and The Silent Drill Team performed. I was so blown away at the precise movements of the platoon and the ability of each Marine to follow a command without a word spoken.

I decided at that moment to leave the Army and join the Marine Corps. My thought was, “I want to be a part of something that is that bad [slang for good], they can follow a command without speaking a word; they must be tough.”

After completing my supply clerk training, I reported back to my Army National Guard unit in Temple, Texas, and immediately began the process to transfer from the Army to the U.S. Marine Corps.

Due to the fact the U.S. Marine Corps is an elite force that is separate and different than the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, I had to endure another 3 months of boot camp. I was shipped off to Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp.

After boot camp, I was shipped off to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to train to become a baker. Please do not get it confused with a cook. Bakers are of a different breed than cooks.

I spent the remainder of career in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Pendleton. I was assigned to 1st Marine Battalion Supply Company for little over a year, until one day my roommate went into my locker, ravage through my personal items and stole a letter from mother.

In the letter my mother asked me about my new girlfriend. My roommate went to our Commanding Officer (CO), stating that she was "afraid I would do something to her because [I] was a lesbian."

Based on that statement, my CO paged me to his office, read me my Miranda Rights, and ask me if I was a homosexual. Trembling with fear and the thought of being thrown out of the military, I lied and said “no.”

My CO, seeing me literally shaking and scared, began to laugh at me. The next day, my CO ordered 3 male Marines to move out of their room. I was placed in their room and isolated from everyone else; especially female Marines.

From that day forward, my First Sergeant and my commanding officer began to harass me on a daily basis; trashing my room, having other Marines spy and report my activities to my CO, making sexist and derogatory statements. Eventually, I was transferred, along with two other female Marines (one was caught shoplifting negligee from a store on base and the other's boyfriend was the top drug dealer on base).

Due to the fact that we were considered “problem Marines,” we were moved to isolated sectors of Camp Pendleton. I was transferred to Edison Range Weapons Field Training Battalion, where the harassment continued. My every move and encounter on or off base, was watched.

I survived my time and eventually completed my contract, receiving an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.

This was over twenty years ago. Even though at times it was horrific due to the injustices placed upon me because of my sexual orientation, I loved serving my country and acting as a patriotic American.

So this week, when I go to Washington D. C. to lobby for our people, I lobby for our people’s right to serve our country and the freedom to serve in their true essence.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN and a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer (CPO) who served both on active duty and the reserves for a total of 22 years. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, x710 or at morgan@sdgln.com