Yesterday the Senate voted to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Finally, clearing the way for President Obama’s signature. Although I didn’t serve in the military, this victory is intensely personal.
In 1994, I, along with Trace Cohen & Steve Campbell founded ApolloMedia, which purchased the electronic rights to Randy Shilts’ journalistic masterpiece, Conduct Unbecoming, about gays and lesbians in the U.S. military.
The critically acclaimed, award-winning CD-ROM we produced -- which Rolling Stone magazine called “evolutionary” -- was the first ever to tackle gay politics, and a product that in and of itself, pioneered digital activism by allowing users to use a zip code map to automatically print out and fax (yes, fax) their representatives in congress (no representatives had email accounts yet).
Using images and videos, we were able to build upon the brilliant research by Randy Shilts and put a human face on an issue that was largely invisible – unless you were in the trenches, actively fighting it.
The project involved meeting and interviewing incredibly brave and pioneering servicemembers and lawyers and activists fighting for the dignity of all gay and lesbian servicemembers.
Long before Lady Gaga and GOProud (an organization taking credit for the repeal),there were many people fighting in the trenches.
Before Dan Choi, Mike Almy, Katie Miller and Victor Fehrenbach there were Johnnie Phelps, Copy Berg, Perry Watkins, Leonard Matlovich, Miriam Ben Shalom, Grethe Cammermeyer, Dusty Pruitt, Justin Elzie, Keith Meinhold, Tanya Domi, Zoe Dunning, Joe Zuniga, Tracey Thorne, Joe Steffan, Andy Holmes, Barbara Baum, Ruth Voor, Karen Colton, Jerry Rosanbalm, Karen Stupski, Phil Adams, Chuck Schoen, Cliff Anchor and Carole Brock to mention but a few. Some of them actively fought the ban, others forced to suffer its consequences.
There were the legal minds, activists and writers that not only made life better for those facing discrimination long before DADT was hatched as an awkward “compromise” but shaped the legal framework of gay servicemembers that would ultimately lead to the demise of DADT – compassionate and savvy warriors like Bridget Wilson, Mary Newcombe, John McGuire, Kate Dyer, Kathy Gilberd, Kirk Childress, David Mixner, Frank Kameny and Rhonda Rivera, Alan Berube, Aaron Belkin and Nathaniel Frank among many.
There were the founders of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network – Michelle Benecke and Dixon Osburn -- which has been perhaps the most important organization protecting servicemembers under DADT to this day.
There was the GLBVA veteran organization founded by Miriam Ben Shalom, and stewarded by Nancy Russell, Jim Darby, Ed Clayton, Cliff Arnesen, AVER, and a host of others.
There was the Alexander Hamilton Post, Post 447 – the first gay American Legion post, founded by Paul Hardman, and active today thanks to people like Bud Robbins, Arch Wilson, Mario Benfield, John Forrett and many others.
Many of these incredible and inspiring people became friends that I love, treasure and respect to this day.
There are many more – too numerous to mention – who have played a role in fighting this battle.
Days before the release of Conduct Unbecoming, the Navy attempted to bar the use of a 1972 recruiting poster featuring the first African American used in a recruiting campaign. Servicemember Ed Graves had been discharged from the Navy a few years later for being gay. Refusing to allow the "Don't Tell" provision of the new policy relating to gays and lesbians in the armed forces to extend to civilians as well, ApolloMedia refused to pull the image.
Represented by Mike Traynor at Cooley Godward, ApolloMedia prevailed against the Navy, establishing the de facto recognition that CD-ROM publishers were entitled to the same First Amendment protections as traditional media.
Wired magazine, under the stewardship of Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rosetto, sold the the CD-ROM through their online property, Hotwired - the first ever commercial web magazine. Additionally, original content from the CD-ROM was developed to promote it, further bringing light to the injustice of the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians.
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was very new, but already the extent to which it was just as bad as prior policies was already clearly evident.
Following the release of Conduct Unbecoming, ApolloMedia set up the first website for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, allowing SLDN to extend its reach beyond traditional avenues, and become one of the first policy driven entities to establish a web presence, serving as a critical destination for servicemembers ensnared in the horror of DADT.
In the case of a naval sailor facing dismissal after private information about him was leaked to Navy investigators by America Online, as publisher of Annoy.com, I launched a "Who's That Queer" Competition" by posting a photograph of a gay active serviceman and daring the military to identify him.
While our efforts pale by comparison to the many who risked their careers and lives to change the treatment of gays in the military, or have made eliminating this discrimination their life's work, yesterday’s senate vote repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, serves as an affirmation that despite the insidious efforts of the likes of Senators Sam Nun and later John McCain, we were on the right side of history back in 1994.
And once the champagne glasses have been appropriately drained, there are those of us who know all too well that the repeal of the policy is just the beginning. Even the demise of Apartheid, where the oppressed became the rightful stewards, did not transform institutionalized discrimination overnight. Allen Schindler and Barry Winchell, viciously and savagely murdered by fearful, hate-driven fellow servicemembers, can attest to that.
There is a lot of educating to do, and a lot of work needs to be done to ensure new methods of discrimination don’t creep into the military, and that the military doesn’t turn a blind eye to harassment.
Women, who can openly serve alongside men, can attest to the sexual harassment that continues to this day – ironically aided and abetted by DADT. Lesbian baiting, however, will become an ugly thing of the past.
SLDN has a lot of work ahead. But right now victory is well deserved.
Whether you are a kid growing up in a small American town and need an escape from a claustrophobic, homophobic mindset, are a patriotic American who believes in defending American’s promise of freedom, or whether you’re following in the footsteps of a proud family tradition, you can now serve openly and honestly without being forced to lie about who you are.
Thank you to all the servicemembers, past and present, and their ardent supporters, without whom this victory for civil rights would not have happened. I salute you.