(619) 505-7777

DADT repeal celebration: A historic night filled with mighty veterans, lots of gratitude and plenty of relief

(Editor's note: I was assigned to cover this event and in doing so, I knew I'd have to write the story in first person. I spent 22 years in the Navy, 12 of those years were spent serving prior to DADT coming into effect, and 10 were after. This topic hits close to home for me.)

SAN DIEGO -- Celebrations took place around the country last night (Sept. 20, 2011) to commemorate the long-awaited repeal of the military's decades-long ban on gays in the military, most recently known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). Here in San Diego, the official celebration took place at The Center in Hillcrest.

I wore a black T-shirt I got at some rally last year that on the front, in red white and blue, said, "Repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and on the back, said "Lift the Ban." I adorned the tee with my three rows of military service ribbons, my boot camp name tag and one of my Chief Petty Officer anchor collar devices. I am proud of my 22 years (seven on active duty, 15 in reserves) and wanted to share that with others without trying to fit back into my old uniform. Kudos to Shaun Flack, however, who did fit back into his full set of Marine Corps dress blues for the celebration.

As people packed into the auditorium (estimates were more than 450 in attendance), there was a sense of excitement as the dull roar of chit- chat between military veterans past and present and their supporters filled the room. I couldn't see, so I stood on the bench all the way along the back wall to get a better view of the crowd and the stage.

Under a large banner that said "Freedom to Serve," the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus lead the room in a spectacular rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner."

The irony of some of the words in our nation's national anthem was not lost on me, and as I would soon find out, they were not lost on several of the evening's speakers, either.

Dr. Dolores Jacobs, Director of The LGBT Center, welcomed the room full of LGBT veterans who are now "Free to Serve" to great applause. Her opening remarks addressing the importance of this historic day and the need to press on for equal benefits in the military drew even more applause, but it was when she quoted some of President Obama's remarks from earlier in the day that the room erupted with a truly thunderous response:

Today, the discriminatory law known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is finally and formally repealed. As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love. As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members. And today, as Commander in Chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service.

As I retyped those words from our President, I got choked up just as much as I did last night when Jacobs read them; for I am one of the statistics. I was not discharged by DADT, but I was drummed out of active service by the decades-long oppressive ban on gays and lesbians, just the same.

I never thought I'd hear that type of vindication coming from a President of our United States.

Jacobs went on to thank the local elected officials, some in attendance, who supported repeal, including Rep. Susan Davis, Assemblymember Toni Atkins, San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria and San Diego school board member Kevin Beiser.

She applauded the co-sponsors of the evening, many that for years have fought hard for repeal: Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), DODFedGlobe, Equality California (EQCA), GetEQUAL, her own San Diego LGBT Center and San Diego Pride. She acknowledged the Log Cabin Republicans, who are still gallantly fighting past discharges in the court system; and she tipped her hat to the new organizations that are offering solace and support to LGBT veterans, Servicemembers United (SU), Military Acceptance Project (MAP) and OutServe.

This was all well and good and of course necessary, but the evening was not about elected officials, it was not about non-profit organizations, it was about how the pain and suffering that LGBT veterans have long endured and sacrificed for, was now over. It was time for the speakers and that was why most of us were there.

A pillar of strength

Marine Corps SSgt Eric Alva, who is a giant of a man in his 5 foot 1 inch tall frame, told the audience that he had "come home." Because although Alva is from San Antonio, Texas, and his friends and supporters there wanted him celebrating with them, San Diego is where his military career started 20 years ago. San Diego is where he had to be on this historic day.

Admitting he forgot his speech, Alva promised to "speak from the heart, and there is a lot of heart in here, tonight." He did not disappoint.

Alva was the first American injured in Iraq after losing his right leg and severely damaging his right arm when he stepped on a land mine.

Four years later he came out, after recognizing the "ethical dilemma" that existed when he realized he had fought and sacrificed for the country's freedoms but wasn't able to enjoy those same freedoms, himself. "I fought for the rights of all Americans, not just an elite few," he told the standing-room-only crowd.

He then referred to the final phrase in the "Star Spangled Banner" we had all just recited and how it now finally applies to LGBT veterans.

"We've always been brave but now we are finally free."

First emotional windfall. With tears streaming down my face, I kept scribbling.

Alva then started what became a common thread through most of the speakers last night, when he said that although DADT is a huge step forward in progress, we can't leave our transgender veterans behind for long.

The new laws do not create change for them and he reminded us that we must all continue the fight for them, as they have done for us.

I got the pleasure of interviewing Alva two weeks ago and had looked forward to meeting him last night, ever since. He is a true pillar of bravery, one we can all lean on and whose story we can gain strength from.

A crown jewel of a sailor

LT Jenny Kopfstein graduated from the Naval Academy in 1999 and served for three years, most of that time as an openly gay woman, after coming out to her commanding officer shortly after her arrival at her first ship. She spoke of the rampant intrusiveness of others that finally pushed her to come out. She told of the time she spent in the Middle East, the time she was promoted and told by her superior, "you deserve this," and also of a Senior Chief on the ship who pulled her aside one day to show her a photo of his own gay son.

"That memory made me realize that although the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' certainly helps gay people in the military, it really helps everyone."

Since leaving the military back in 2003, she has used her experience to testify in high profile DADT-related court cases and in front of Congress.

The "crown jewel" of her testimonies was earlier this year, when she flew to Washington state and testified on behalf of Major Margaret Witt, the highly decorated Air Force officer who was discharged under DADT in 2007 but whose court case against that discharge was still pending.

"It was a proud moment for me," she said. "The judge was very attentive and as we all know, Major Witt won her case." Witt returned to active duty just long enough to retire, which she did this past Sept. 4.

Kopfstein's parents and her partner, a retired Navy Chief of 26 years, were also in attendance.

A renewed civil rights activist

The third speaker is no stranger to most, as she is one of the White House 13, the 13 LGBT veterans and other activists who chained themselves to the White House fence last November.

Former Marine Corps Corporal Evelyn Thomas had participated in this same act of civil disobedience just six months prior, with five other veterans. These combined acts in protest of DADT both got national media attention, and got more than a few nights in the slammer for Thomas.

Last night, if even for just a few moments, Thomas turned this erstwhile calm celebration into a civil rights rally. After first acknowledging how humbled she was to be sharing the stage with "true American hero" Eric Alva, her voice changed in both octave and decibel level as she took control of the room.

"I AM," Thomas shouted in a halting tone, encouraging others to mimic her. "SOMEBODY. AND I DESERVE. FULL EQUALITY. RIGHT HERE. RIGHT NOW." She repeated her full chant in that same halting fashion, three times, as more and more in the crowd joined in.

She then paid homage to those who stood along the fence with her (and although she didn't name names, I think it is important to note that former Lt. Dan Choi was with her on both of those occasions) and those who marched the halls of Congress along with her, those LGBT veterans who served under "the malicious system of oppression," as well as those currently serving in uniform, and thanked them all.

Thomas then announced her Sanctuary Project has made a new commitment to LGBT veterans. Their goal is to get 1 million LGBT vets enrolled in the Veteran's Administration to get their benefits by the year 2014.

"You served, you deserve," she said.

A huge weight removed

She was definitely a hard act to follow, but little Christine Ensign, the next speaker, was able to pull it off.

"I can't tell you how great it felt to wake up and have that weight off of my shoulders," she announced, her voice quivering. "It feels amazing."

This midwestern girl from Kansas City told the crowd she had been out to her family at an early age and joined the U.S. Navy in 2007 because of her grandfather. She had no idea how difficult it would be to manage her personal life alongside her professional career.

Ensign is currently an active duty Navy nurse who explained how annoying it has been to deal with the intrusiveness of her colleagues who are constantly asking her about her relationship status. They just can't help themselves.

I must admit, I remember that all too well.

"Every day, 'where's your boyfriend?' 'Are you dating?' 'What, are you gay?' I just never knew what to say," Ensign explained to the crowd. Like so many of us she used the "long distance" excuse to fend off the constant questioning, too many times.

"Tomorrow I can go into work and say, 'Hey ya know what? Umm yeah.'" she said, to roars of laughter and loud applause from the crowd.

Take that intrusive colleagues.

Kind of makes you wonder what the rest of the military expected to happen on Sept. 20. Did they think the doors of closets everywhere would burst wide open and feather boas would prance down the passageways? A white party would erupt in the middle of the desert? A Pride parade would flash mob itself through the center of the base? How many thought that several of their gay colleagues would finally make a pass at them?

Six worlds that rocked the evening

The final speaker of the night was the perfect ending to a fascinating evening.

Retired Colonel Stewart Bornhoft is a highly decorated career Army officer who served his country admirably from 1969 to 1995. He is featured in the photo essay book, Proud to Serve, now available on demand.

In his opening remarks, the Colonel gave a salute to those of us who suffered the sometimes even heavier burdens of the ban in the years prior to the enactment of DADT. All but two of the Colonel's service years were spent before DADT. He referred to that time period as the "Don't Even Think About It" era. I got a huge chuckle out of that and I looked left to my friend, a former USMC SGT who served then, too, and we shared a wide smile.

"Six words," the Colonel suddenly said, bringing me back to the present.

He repeated it again. It was hard to hear him over the buzzing crowd, but I knew he kept telling us something about "six words." I thought out in my head "repeal don't ask don't tell done" but that was not what he was referring to. Then, just as his voice became louder and clearer over the speaker, his intention became clear in my head.

Colonel Bornhoft was hankering back to another American theme that every single one of us in that room has had memorized since the day we first stepped foot into school: The Pledge of Allegiance.

"Six very special words," he said. He told us a story about the historic day last December that he spent in Washington. The day that President Obama first signed the law that committed to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He said the president had invited so many people - 1,000 - to the signing, that the White House couldn't fit them all and they had to move the ceremony.

He spoke of how emotional and dramatic it was to listen to the words of Vice President Joe Biden, who then introduced the president, who then signed HR2965 into law, pounded the desk and said, "This is done."

But what was much more dramatic than that, the Colonel shared, happened an hour or so before, when it was just former Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, whom he said has "the bearing of someone who has had a lot to bear," took to the podium and lead the 1,000 in attendance in the Pledge of Allegiance. Colonel Cammermeyer is an early opponent of the military's ban on gays and lesbians. Her own story was shared in her autobiography, "Serving in Silence" which was also made into a movie with Glenn Close in 1995.

As Colonel Cammermeyer lead that room full of LGBT military veterans, activists and allies in the pledge, Colonel Bornhoft told us he "lost it." For when he and the others got to "with liberty and justice for all" he realized that for the first time in his life, he felt those words applied to HIM.

"I was part of that ALL," he told us. Now we all were part of that "all" and he wanted this room full of LGBT veterans to feel it, too.

"Please join me in turning towards the flag. Now let's celebrate the freedom to serve," he said, "and emphasize those final six words."

The room launched into the Pledge of Allegiance and when we all got to "… and liberty and justice for ALL" we all shouted it with pride. Many were choked with emotion just saying the words.

The ceremony was now over and it was time to run off to the parties at Bamboo Lounge and Bourbon Street. My colleague Benny Cartwright chats up those celebrations with a story of his own.

San Diego's sung and unsung heros

And although I had every intention to attend those parties, too, I wanted to go work the room and make contact with my fellow veterans.

Sean Sala, the former Navy petty officer who organized the group of LGBT veterans in our Pride parade this past July that got international attention, was thrilled with the evening. Sean is now affiliated with Servicemembers United (SU) here in San Diego who helped sponsor the celebration. He and I shared a long hug and congratulated each other.

I also sought out another former sailor and longtime activist, Ben Gomez. Ben had been a little under the weather the last couple days, so I was happy to see him at the ceremony. To me, Ben is one of San Diego's most underappreciated and uncelebrated activist heros. He certainly does not get the attention or accolades that I feel he deserves. He has put a lot of time and effort into this DADT battle, and he deserves as much credit as anyone else.

I tried to seek out Eric Alva, but he had already been whisked off to Bourbon Street, where he would be soon getting an award from the Military Acceptance Project (MAP). My interview with Eric two weeks ago was one of my fondest moments, and the gratitude he has since shown me in his appreciation for my article has been humbling.

Next I made my way to Evelyn Thomas and proudly shook her hand. One of my longtime friends, a retired Navy Chief, was so moved by Evelyn's speech earlier, she had tracked her down to enlist her help in drumming up female members for both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Their membership numbers are waning and women are just a small fraction of their rosters. The generally quite stoic LGBT activist beamed as she told me about the conversation. The evening was clearly an impactful one for all of us.

I approached an HM1 (Hospital Corpsman/First Class Petty Officer) who was ambling around in his dress white cracker jacks, and asked if I could ask him a few questions. Initially, he begged off, saying he "wasn't authorized to be there." I quickly explained that the SLDN had released guidelines for the evening and since this ceremony was not a political rally, he was more than within regulations to not only be there, but chat with me.

Petty Officer Stewart has served in the U.S. Navy for over 12 years; all of those years have been under the painful and oppressive rules of DADT.

"I felt like I was living a lie," he explained.

I asked him what the repeal of the ban meant to him.

"I can fully live up to the values of honor, courage and commitment," he said, referring to what the Navy teaches as their "core values."

A little side-bar. I asked Stewart if he knew where those three words - Honor, Courage, Commitment came from. He did not, so I educated him.

The Navy acts like those three words have been drilled into our swabby heads since the beginning of time, but the truth of the matter is they didn't take prominence as a mantra or center stage in Navy leadership classes until after the catastrophic blemish that is known as "Tailhook" -- derived from the name of an annual Navy airdale conference. It was a long weekend in Vegas back in 1991 that went so awry, it blew the doors off the hidden travesty of sexual harassment in the Navy.

Just two years later, DADT was put on the books.

Stewart and I joked about the misnomer that exists regarding those who work in certain ratings (Hospital Corpsman being one of those) where being gay really didn't make any difference because you can be as "out" as you want. "Corpsmen get a bad rap," he laughed. I could tell by his demeanor it hasn't been as easy as some would think.

He assured me things won't be much different now that the repeal has been finalized.

"It will be business as usual tomorrow, except that I won't have to lie," he said.

The one thing this gay career petty officer will do? Put a picture of himself and his boyfriend on his desk. I would like to have been there today when he did that and can just imagine the all-at-once sense of pride and unresolved discomfort that would accompany such an act. I wished him well and thanked him for his service.

As I turned around, a Chief Petty Officer stood in front of me.

"May I interview you, Chief?" I asked. "Yes you may, Chief," he replied.

This 15-year veteran was ETC(AW/SW) Davila. Zachary, his partner of almost six years, was standing right by his side. Ironically, the two first met right there at The Center. Now they were back celebrating this historic day, together.

Davila and his partner have talked about this day for years, never ever thinking it would happen. He came so close to getting out, just so he could be free of the constraints which now that he was a Chief Petty Officer, in some ways eased, but in others became magnified.

As an enlisted leader, there is a very large line drawn between Chief Davila and his subordinates. This makes it easy for him to keep things professional and never delve into his personal life. On the other hand, the higher ranked you become in the military, the more expectations are put upon you.

He told me several stories about how he "played the system." They are funny, but infinitely sad stories, and I must tell them so people understand what we went through.

Davila wears a ring on his left hand. During the induction process when he made Chief Petty Officer, he was humiliated repeatedly because he could not answer questions about that ring to the satisfaction of the other Chief Petty Officers above him. He finally felt compelled to lie, to get out of the situation, and said he had a fiancee.

This small white lie to avoid further immediate persecution as well as longterm prosecution, created a domino effect for both his career and personal life.

1) He now had to invite the friend he named as his fiancee to his "pinning" (the ceremony that immediately follows the induction process where he officially takes on the rank of Chief Petty Officer).

2) In order to have Zachary, his real partner, pin his anchors on his collar, he had to answer questions as to who this person was and why his fiancee was not doing the pinning. (During my pinning I couldn't have my partner at the time, either; I chose my father and my CPO sponsor, instead).

He meant to identify Zachary as his brother-in-law, but accidentally said "brother" - with Davila Hispanic and Zachary Caucasian, he had to adjust it to "step-brother."

3) He had to explain the situation to his parents who were flying in for the ceremony. This would be the first time his father would be around his partner and he had to tell his parents about this fantastical lie they conjured up -- and make them complicit -- just to appease the military.

4) His first major event as a new CPO was the "khaki ball" and he had to take this female friend along as his date.

All of this to counteract one false statement that was made simply to avoid TELLING his truth.

Going forward, Davila doesn't think much will change for him, either. He doesn't plan on putting a photo of Zachary on his desk, however. Being a Chief, he knows it will remain easy to draw the line between personal and professional with those he supervises, but it will be a little more challenging with his peers in the Chief Petty Officer's mess.

"It will be a relief to not feel like others 'have something on me'," he said. "Many of my peers have told me they just want me to be more comfy."

Davila was lucky enough to be selected as one of three responsible for implementation of the DADT training at his large command here in San Diego.

"The junior sailors took it in stride," he said. "They honestly don't understand what the big deal is. It is the senior leadership that needed the training."

Several years ago, Davila was really struggling with thoughts of leaving the military because of the ban and decided to seek out some help. He approached the SLDN booth at Pride and asked how he could get involved with repeal but still keep his anonymity. The response he got is what kept him going then and still does today.

"He told me the best thing I could do was stay in and be the best sailor I could be," he told me. "And I've done just that."

A night to remember

For many, last night was just like any other, but for those of us who have lived under this discriminatory policy while giving our all, it was a night we will all remember for the rest of our lives.

Photo credits: Upper left, TOP: Linda Sanders, City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, Cpl Evelyn Thomas and SDGLN Publisher Johnathan Hale by Jim Winsor, SDPix. Middle: The crowd at the LGBT Center repeal celebration by Erica Knight. Bottom: Navy Lt. Christine Ensign, speaking at repeal celebration by Erica Knight.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Assistant Editor of SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext 710, or via email at morgan@sdgln.com.