by Zoe Dunning – new Alice Board Member
Published in the Bay Area Reporters January 20th, 2011 Edition
On December 22, I exited my cab in front of the Interior Department building in Washington, D.C. It was 6:40 a.m., pitch black, and cold. Groggy and chilled, I paid the driver and looked up to see a long line forming around the block. Everyone was waiting to get into the building’s auditorium and witness the historic presidential signing ceremony for the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010.
Our community has had victories before, but they often seem piecemeal or temporary. We win marriage equality in one state only to have it voted down in another. We win a judicial ruling, but it is appealed to another court, tossed around like a hot potato. In contrast, this day had the feeling of irreversible accomplishment. We did it!
As I walked past the growing crowd to get in line, I could feel the electricity in the air. I recognized and greeted people who had a major role in this battle the past 20 years – Democratic activist David Mixner, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, Major Margaret Witt, Pat Kutteles (the mother of slain Private First Class Barry Winchell) and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network co-founder Dixon Osburn, to name a few.
For me, this was the culmination of a personal journey I began 18 years ago when William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as our 42nd president. Three days before his inauguration I relied on his campaign pledge to lift the ban on gay military service and came out as a lesbian Naval officer at a political rally in front of Moffett Field. I came out because of my frustration that LGBT service members directly impacted by the ban were forced to remain silent. In that moment in 1993, I felt a strong responsibility to bring a voice to the thousands without a voice, and bring our experience into the national debate.
The rest, as they say, is history. The military began discharge proceedings against me, and President Clinton gave us the failed DADT law. I was a fortunate exception – I won retention, only to have my legal defense strategy deemed off limits by the Pentagon for use in any future cases. Unable to challenge the constitutionality of DADT, I went on to build a 13-year record of openly gay and proud service all the while demonstrating close working relationships with my fellow colleagues and shipmates.
Because of my personal story and my continued activism on DADT, I was honored to be invited to stand next to President Obama as he signed the bill. The most precious gift I received from that opportunity on stage was the perspective to look out at a room of brave heroes like Grethe Cammermeyer, Justin Elzie, Dan Choi, Miriam Ben-Shalom and countless others who helped make this day happen. I witnessed jubilant smiles, tears of pain, tears of joy, and moments of healing. It was a magical place and time.
What lies ahead? Although a significant victory, we cannot hoist any premature “Mission Accomplished” banners yet. LGBT service members are still not free to be open, but there is now light at the end of the tunnel. Soon, likely in the next three to four months, all the administrative hurdles will be cleared and patriotic LGB men and women can serve openly. We must not forget our transgender brothers and sisters – there are military medical regulations and statutes that still need to be addressed to secure full equality.
As history has shown with racial and gender integration of the military, signing a document does not ensure equality. We must remain vigilant to ensure the Pentagon’s implementation of DADT repeal is fair and thorough. We have repealed a law mandating institutional discrimination, but bias against LGBT service members will continue to exist in pockets of the military. Groups like OutServe, a network of over 2,000 active duty LGBT service members, will be crucial as our eyes and ears in the field reporting how implementation is really going.
Four days prior to the historic presidential signing ceremony, I was at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center with fellow veterans and activists to witness the Senate DADT repeal vote via television. Following the vote, a young man came up to me, shook my hand, and introduced himself. He is an active duty Airman who has served for 11 years, including three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He looked me in my eyes with tears of gratitude and relief and said simply, “Thank you!” He gave me a bear hug and kept whispering in my ear, “Thank you, thank you, thank you …”
These are the moments that remind me why we do the work we do. Through all the rhetoric and the many setbacks, we must never lose sight of who is depending on us to succeed. This was a historic victory not only for our community but for our country – let us savor it for a few more sweet moments before we brush ourselves off and continue the fight doing the work we must do until full equality is achieved.