'There is a real opportunity for things to change for gays in the military. I have not said that any time before,' executive director C. Dixon Osburn told those gathered for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network gala dinner in Washington, D.C., Oct. 4.
A principle reason for his optimism is the Supreme Court decision in June that struck down state sodomy laws, and a legal brief that SLDN filed two days prior to the dinner that takes on sodomy laws in the military under Article 125 of the UCMJ.
'The military, unlike many of the states, actually enforces its [sodomy rules] pretty regularly,' said Osburn. 'You can face up to five years confinement for every act. So if one night you bring somebody home and you do it twice, that's 10 years. You better have been good.'
SLDN has assisted about 5,000 men and women in uniform since its founding in 1993. One of the most dramatic examples followed the murder of PFC Barry Winchell while he slept in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1999. It vividly dramatized the failure of the antigay military policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'
So it was fitting that many of the speakers that evening had ties to Winchell. His mother, Patricia Kutteles, presented the Barry Winchell Courage Award to Michelle Benecke, cofounder of SLDN, who has since retired from that position.
'She has been a passionate advocate responsible for making the military pay attention and making it change. Many of us would not be here this evening without the vision and commitment of Michelle Benecke,' said Kutteles.
Benecke called SLDN 'the voice of service members who cannot speak from themselves.' She firmly believes 'that within the lifetime of the younger service members who are in the military today, that we will see this policy fall.'
Calpernia Addams was dating Winchell at the time of his death. The transgender woman described how the Navy 'taught me how to heal and how to fight' during her own service as a medic during the Gulf War more than a decade ago. 'What Barry's murder showed is that even heterosexual service members are vulnerable to hate crimes.'
Master Chief Petty Officer (Ret) Vincent W. Patton III, at one point the highest ranking enlisted man in the Coast Guard, explained why he, 'a straight man,' serves on SLDN's advisory board. As a small child in Detroit, his father had defended a gay male couple living in the neighborhood when they were the victims of an anti-gay attack. That experienced helped to shape his view of equality and justice for all people.
'Our world is a neighborhood. We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one, directly affects all, intimately,' he said, quoting Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 'The time is always right to do what is right.'
He recalled a visit to one of his posts by openly gay Congressman Barney Frank. 'He received a 19-gun salute, flag flying, but he couldn't serve in the military.' Patton said, 'It's ridiculous, it has to be stopped.'
Reichen Lehmkuhl, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and poster boy from TV's Amazing Race 4, worked the pre-dinner reception crowd like a Californian running for governor. Later he was at the podium to receive an award.
'I called SLDN when I was a lieutenant at Los Angeles Air Force Base and this person decided she was going to turn me in,' he said. 'It was like being put under a big warm wing.' He wants to make sure that same support is there for others who need it.
'I didn't come out at the Academy for one reason—Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I was so scared at the Academy that I couldn't even breathe. I went from day to day, class to class, meal to meal, wondering when it was going to happen. When I was going to be paraded in front of a group of cadets who were going to judge me for breaking a regulation, or court-martialed.'
Reichen lashed out at 'those who call themselves the Christian right ... who have raised countless millions of dollars to halt and reverse the gay rights' movement in America. 'People are hiding behind religion to promote bigotry against gay people more than ever today ... . There is a difference between tolerating religious beliefs and tolerating disruptive religious culture.'
Osburn closed his presentation by quoting from Abraham Lincoln. 'If there is anything which we should never entrust to any hands but our own, that thing is the preservation of our own liberty and our own institutions. The power to change is in our hands and in our thoughts.'