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No longer a silent night: Gay chorus servicemembers sing this holiday without fear of losing their jobs

SAN DIEGO -- For most people, an invitation to sing the national anthem at a San Diego Padres baseball game would be the thrill of a lifetime. Not so for Bobby Thompson.

In 2007, with retirement from the Navy just a few years away, singing publicly with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus meant that he could be fired under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. And not only that, he could lose his retirement benefits after nearly 20 years of service.

So, with a heavy heart, Thompson sat in the stands and remained silent while his friends proudly sang the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Fast forward to 2012 — the ban on gays serving openly in the military, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” has been repealed. Gay servicemembers don't have to hide anymore. Thompson, a technology specialist who went on to retire as a First Class Petty Officer last year with full benefits, is now preparing to sing with his fellow chorus members at their Balboa Theatre holiday show this weekend.

This will be the first holiday concert that gay active duty military members can join without fear of losing their jobs — a fact not lost on the more than a dozen former and active duty servicemembers of the 130-member chorus, led by Artistic Director Gary Holt.

“I loved serving my country and fighting for everyone’s freedom,” said Thompson, who sings tenor and lives in North Park. “I’m glad that freedom —including something as basic as singing — now extends to all people who want to serve their country.”

Singing while serving under DADT law

No one could agree more than Navy Lieutenant Commander Eric Sarmiento, who retired Nov. 30 after 24 years in the Medical Services Corps. As the highest ranking active-duty officer singing with the chorus since 2006, he had the most to lose.

“I had to keep well-hidden when we sang at December Nights in Balboa Park,” Sarmiento remembered. “It makes me really appreciate how things are now.”

A Florida resident stationed in San Diego, Sarmiento was deployed to the Middle East four times in the past 10 years.

"When you are in a war zone, you think back to your friends. My friends are the chorus. They have been very supportive of me and are part of who I am,” said Sarmiento, who will soon be working at Balboa Hospital as a civilian.

"The ban ended just as I was hitting Pearl Harbor from a deployment in the Middle East. It hit me hard. I was just so happy. I felt so fortunate to see it happen in my military career.”

Fighting for country and to lift DADT ban

Also thankful is chorus member and Gulf War veteran Marine Corps Sergeant Bob Lehman. A transplant from the Louisville, Ky. area, his Johnny Cash baritone belies the fierce tenacity with which he fought for gays to serve openly.

“I put my life on the line to fight for my country,” said Lehman, who was an artillery sergeant and Marine recruiter. "I fought just as hard to get the ban lifted."

Lehman spent several years as the head of San Diego’s American Veterans for Equal Rights lobbying Congress members on this issue. He also organized and led the first group of openly gay veterans to march in San Diego’s Veterans Day Parade. He is now happy to have that behind him.

“I’d much rather be singing ‘Silent Night’ than dealing with the injustice of being forced to hide and be silent,” Lehman said.

A new generation benefits from DADT repeal

The experiences, battles and victories of Thompson, Sarmiento and Lehman are greatly admired by Navy Petty Officer Second Class Juan Calix, who works at Naval Base Coronado. Having joined the military in 2010, he has benefited firsthand from those servicemembers who cleared the way for a new generation to serve and sing without fear.

“When I joined the chorus last year, it was just a few weeks before the ban ended. The training had been going on for a year, so I wasn't concerned about singing with a gay chorus,” said Calix, a 25-year-old bass singer.

“That’s why I admire so much those who worked to get the ban lifted,” he added. "I never had to go through what they did. I never felt I could lose everything. It blows my mind how they had to serve in silence. I never take what they did for granted.”

In fact, not only does the second-year aviation electronics technician not worry, he now includes his singing on his Navy evaluations.

“It helps me stand out in a very positive way. It’s a brotherhood, just like the military is a brotherhood,” he said. “Being stationed 3,000 miles away from all my family in Pennsylvania, the chorus has become my second family. That’s especially important during the holidays. I have been accepted.”

Tickets available for this weekend's holiday show

The San Diego Gay Men's Chorus will perform their annual holiday show, "Ice & Spice," on Saturday, Dec. 15, at 8 pm and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3 pm at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. Tickets and information are available online or at 619-570-1100.

Photo captions

Top left: USMC Sergeant Bob Lehman, who served in Operation Desert Storm, as a baritone with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus.

Middle left: U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Eric Sarmiento (ret. Nov. 30) as member of the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus.

Bottom left: U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Eric Sarmiento (ret. Nov. 30) as member of the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus.