By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
November is upon us and that means Veterans Day is near.
I’m a proud Navy veteran, who spent 7 years on active duty and another 15 years as a very active Naval Reservist. I retired from the Naval Reserves as a Chief Petty Officer (E-7) with a total of 22 years.
It wasn’t easy being in the reserves … keeping up with the military standards, juggling a full-time job that forced me to travel constantly, managing my mandatory commitment to monthly drill weekends and two or more weeks of active duty training every year, and later, balancing my choice to raise my two nephews on top of everything else. Many people don’t last — because the reserves are hard to keep up with.
But active duty, even without all those other obligations and just myself and that one career to focus on, was even harder, because I was gay.
I loved the Navy so much, I would have stayed on active duty for 30 years and retired as a Master Chief Petty Officer, but my active duty years were 1980-87, long before the policy called “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” (shortened to DADT for brevity) was even a thought. In those years, there was a total ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military and the Naval Investigative Service actively pursued us every day of the week.
I was investigated three times in 7 years. Three times. Each investigation got more challenging, more difficult, and more invasive; and each one damaged me a little deeper and a little differently.
But a bigger tragedy is what happened with our LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor right here at The San Diego LGBT Community Center.
There’s been a lot of talk on these pages in recent months about how The Center has been methodically erasing our elders and their history. They literally destroyed the tiles that many paid for with hard-earned money, without notifying them; they recently had their last AIDS Walk; and more.
I’ve kept quiet about this the last few years, but the uproar over the tiles made me relive it all. The Veterans Wall of Honor has changed, too.
When DADT was officially repealed on Sept. 20, 2011, Nicole Murray Ramirez was quick to gather support to establish a Veterans Wall of Honor at The Center. He had it named after Ben Dillingham, III and Bridget Wilson, both veterans whose careers deserved such an honor. The Wall was meant to hold space for those LGBT veterans who had served in silence while enduring the ban and/or the DADT policy. Many had perfect records but were discharged unjustly merely for being gay. Some even received bad conduct discharges and lost their veterans benefits for life. Bridget Wilson has played a huge part in getting many of those discharges overturned.
Many, like myself, were pursued over and over and finally left the military, making us a statistic of our own. Some endured the pressure their entire career and made it to the very top of the enlisted ranks, suffering greatly every step of the way as they hid their true selves and their partners, unable to be considered their “next of kin.”
It was a horrific time for us. Even if you never got “caught” (which in itself is a horrible thing to say, as if we were doing anything wrong other than trying to live our lives) you were constantly looking over your shoulder; using “they” pronouns to avoid missteps; never letting your straight coworkers to get too close, and if you did, you were always afraid, because if you ever crossed them, all they had to do was turn you in – it really was that simple; marrying other gays to keep from being suspected. It was awful.
I know there are many who lived straight lives while on active duty, only to come out afterward, and they don’t really understand what the rest of us went through, but I do know many of them are proudly on the wall, too.
Nicole, who never served but is a truly patriotic human who honors all veterans, had the foresight to understand that once the ban was finally over, a wall of honor needed to be established, so we could be seen and honored for what happened to us.
I joined the advisory council immediately after that first ceremony in 2011, which inducted Ben and Bridget. I was proudly inducted in 2013, and served on that advisory board for nearly 10 years, spending a great number of those years as chair or co-chair. We had the first – and for many years the only — veterans wall of our kind in the nation. I was passionate about the inductees and hearing their stories. Many who were inducted had not been able to use the words “gay” and “military” in the same sentence, ever. I’ve watched our elder men and women cry as they told their stories at the induction ceremonies, so humbled at being honored for something that for so long they felt so much shame for.
I remember on several occasions when I was chair, we were asked to try to “diversify” our inductees more. Diversify? The groups were apparently “too white.” I tried to explain that up until DADT was put into place, the majority of servicemembers in general were white; the number of LGBT folks was a small percentage of the service as a whole; POC were a small percentage of the service as a whole; and the intersection of LGBT and POC servicemembers was an even smaller percentage.
We did our best to uncover trans and POC folks every year, but we didn’t always meet that mark. The “marginalized” mark. But damnit, all of us who served in silence were marginalized. For decades! And all the people who were nominated and met the criteria still mattered, regardless of whether they are considered “marginalized” by today’s standards or not.
I stepped down as chair in early 2020 but stayed on the council. In 2021, the 10th anniversary of the wall, the co-chairs told us a change to the rules was pending. They wanted to open up the induction process to LGBT veterans who served after the ban. In other words, any LGBT service member who was able to serve openly could now be inducted to the wall, and they were doing it with a specific person in mind (who was serving on The Center’s board at the time).
I was shocked and angry. This couldn’t be possible. You would not put a gay man who died of cancer on an AIDS Memorial, I told them.
We moved forward with a virtual meeting to vote on this new rule, but there was very little debate, except what came from me. It was apparent the decision had been made and the vote was just a formality. I must admit, I held my head down and cried the entire meeting. Nothing I had to say mattered. I was the only advisory council member who voted NO. I was completely devastated and felt those many years of pain all over again.
I resigned the following Monday and have not had anything to do with the ceremony or the advisory council since. For the first year and a half, I could not share this story without crying, it hurt me so deeply. Why honor an LGBT veteran who served openly? There are plenty of veterans organizations and walls for them.
I’ve thought long and hard about this since and I realized it all comes down to the almighty dollar. More diversity means more grants and more government funding. So our military veterans who were abused by our own government are now being overlooked by the nonprofit organizations who are scrambling for all that money being dished out by that same government for diversity programs. Touché.
Salute our Veterans
There will be a free special advance screening of a DADT-based, hour-long documentary produced by Trevor Noah called “Serving in Secret: Love, Country, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” featuring Tom Carpenter, one of our local elder veterans (inducted 2018, along with his partner Courtland, posthumously). The film will screen Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 6 pm at Urban MO’s. Seating begins at 5 pm and Tom will be there! See our news briefs for more information.
In addition, if you’d like to hear me share about my three investigations, I’ve been asked to speak at the Kiwanis Hillcrest All-Inclusive meeting, Thursday, Nov. 9, at 6:30 pm at Uptown Tavern.
Oh and the LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor induction ceremony is that same night, Nov. 9, from 6-8 pm at The Center.
—Morgan can be reached at [email protected].
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