Pictured SSGT Miriam Ben-Shalom (second from left) with AVER's Ed Wosylus, JoAnn Ariano and Jim Darby. Ben-Shalom and Wosylus. Photos by Marie-Jo Proulx
On Nov. 11, the Chicago Chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights ( AVER ) celebrated Veterans Day with a fundraising dinner at Ann Sather Restaurant. Some 50 members and friends attended the event which featured SSGT Miriam Ben-Shalom as guest speaker.
Ben-Shalom, a Milwaukee teacher who joined the military as an Army Reservist in 1974 and became a respected drill instructor, is now an inspiration to many in the gay community. While her case has been widely reported on, the ultimate outcome remains a symbol of the silence imposed upon gay servicemembers. Discharged in 1976 for merely saying she was a lesbian, Ben-Shalom challenged the army on the grounds that the discharge was an unconstitutional infringement of her First Amendment rights. In 1980, the District Court in Chicago sided with her and ordered her reinstatement.
The army did not comply with the ruling and it was another seven years before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the lower court's decision. Ben-Shalom then reenlisted, got a commendation and a promotion, but in 1989 the same court overturned its previous ruling, forcing her to leave the military once again.
Finally, in 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her case, which effectively sealed her dismissal.
That same year, Ben-Shalom founded the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America ( GLBVA ) along with five other veterans who had been kicked out of the armed forces. Today, under the name AVER, the group has local chapters in over a dozen states and more are in formation. While this year's election results have disheartened many, former National Secretary and current Chicago Chapter President Jim Darby said the organization counts approximately 500 members nationally.
Darby and others at the Veterans Day dinner mentioned the unique educational opportunities the G.I. Bill had offered them. Darby obtained his college degree through the program and added that he spoke Russian, which was a useful advantage in the Cold War era. He bemoaned the recent discharge of Arabic speakers from the ranks.
Ben-Shalom explained some of the details of her drawn-out legal battle and promised to keep fighting for equality and the reversal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' Admitting an initial temptation to retire from the spotlight, she said she thought of the plight of the Jews in concentration camps who had no voice to speak about the injustice facing them. She said she began to 'see' faces around her bed at night saying, 'Hum, who gave you the privilege of silence?'
During the brief time she was allowed back in the service, Ben-Shalom received moral support from members of another minority. At first, she said it was only Black soldiers who came and sat at her table in the mess hall. She said she owes them an immeasurable debt of gratitude for understanding what it felt like to be openly discriminated against.
Ben-Shalom implored gay and lesbian veterans to tell their stories in order for people both in and out of the military to appreciate their sacrifice and bravery. Documenting Courage: Veterans Speak Out, a joint project of AVER, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) and the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) , is in the process of compiling such testimonies for the creation of an educational and lobbying tool. 'Your service is honorable and worthy of being recorded. So that those who come after us will know exactly the measure of this community,' she said.