"There are gay and lesbian members of the armed forces on the land, in the air, and on the sea fighting against terrorism to preserve freedom. These heroes also, unfortunately, must fight a second war, the war against harassment and discrimination."
The words were those of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening in his keynote address to the Ninth Annual "End the Witch Hunts" dinner, held Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C.
SLDN's Osburn and Gov. Glendening. Photo by Bob Roehr
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) sponsored the event that drew more than 600 participants.
Glendening spoke movingly of his brother Bruce, who served 19 years in the Air Force, volunteering for two tours of duty in Vietnam and later dying of AIDS.
"He absolutely loved the Air Force," said Glendening. He recounted their last conversation when Bruce was in a great deal of pain. "He told me, what hurt him most was that he had to live his life in secrecy. That hurt him more than worrying about being killed in Vietnam, or even dying the painful way he was dying."
"He had to live every single day a lie. That is just not acceptable in this country." The Governor said that service members are fighting to defend our freedom, "And yet the very [ gay and lesbian ] protectors of our freedom are denied the right to live their lives as they see fit. No one should have to live their lives like this. It is shameful and it must end."
Glendening called the nation "a mosaic of many different cultures and religions. Our diversity is not a problem to be managed, it is a strength to be celebrated." He was "absolutely outraged" to hear Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blame gays and others for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The governor contrasted the fundamentalists' behavior with that of "one of the very first heroes in the conflict against terrorism, a gay man named Mark Bingham ... who Sept. 11, before the world really understood what was happening, understood and took action" in helping to crash their flight in western Pennsylvania.
"There is no courage greater than sacrificing your own life to save the lives of others. That was the courage of Mark Bingham," Glendening said. "He was not a hero because he was gay, he was a hero who also was gay."
He called SLDN "an indispensable lifeline to so many ... who not only show the courage to defend their country but also must bear the burden of hiding a central part of themselves in order to do so. Right now your organization is needed more ever."
SLDN Executive Director Dixon Osburn used the theme of courage in his remarks to the audience. He cited the courage of former Air Force Lt. Shalandra Baker who did not give in to the threats to "out" her from an abusive girlfriend. Baker spoke with her commander and with SLDN, though unfortunately she was not allowed to remain in the military.
"We do not know if we are on the cusp of a large scale war, or a surgical strike, or worse," said Osburn. "But there is one thing that we do know, that lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members will be there on the front lines defending our freedom. And that is courage."
Osburn made it clear that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remains in effect; gays and lesbians are still subject to discharge from the military. "The stop loss orders in the Navy and the Air Force, they still say, gay people are not welcome, go home."
He said that SLDN has assisted more than 3,000 service members over their eight years. He asked those who have served or are serving in the military "and who feel comfortable in letting us know that, to please stand and be recognized." Nearly a hundred men and women did so, to great applause.
Osburn was encouraged by recent developments. "We have a very good dialog [ with the Pentagon ] that is ongoing." Earlier in the year, a group of military jurists recommended doing away with the sodomy statutes within the services, in a document known as the Cox report.
He called the Army publication Dignity and Respect "the most comprehensive training guide" for implementing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And he told the story of one soldier who confronted antigay harassment and with the support of his commander, is continuing to serve.
"Officials at Fort Bragg apologized to us, and in the base newspaper, for publishing an antigay political cartoon. They said, that cartoon was against the Army's core values. A few years ago, that would have never happened."