Gay Veterans Wage New Battle at Home

Forced to keep silent in the military, former GIs have now found their voice, and they seek recognition for their wartime sacrifices.

By Bonnie Miller Rubin
May 29, 2004

When Jeff Cleghorn was in the Army, he lived in fear that someone would find out he was gay. He led a double life, never talking about what he did on weekends or with whom.

As a veteran, however, the retired major's actions have been anything but secretive. He lobbies Congress and writes editorials in support of gay veterans, and last weekend he participated in a convention of retired gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines--a gathering that included a military ball, with uniforms encouraged.

As the nation prepares to observe its third consecutive Memorial Day at war, Cleghorn and other gay and lesbian veterans are determined that their sacrifices be recognized.

"We have found our voice," said Cleghorn of Atlanta, who proudly served on three continents in 12 years before retiring. "We have had an incredible growth spurt and there's no turning back. We are demanding our seat at the table."

The holiday weekend caps a year of unprecedented activity. Gay veterans are working to establish a national monument and to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule. They're sharing stories of bravery in a new booklet called "Documenting Courage" and proposing gay alumni chapters for the U.S. service academies.

The Urban Institute, a research organization based in Washington, estimates from census and survey data that there are 1 million gay and lesbian veterans. Some say they are slowly being accepted by mainstream veterans organizations, even as the Pentagon continues to enforce a policy prohibiting people who are openly gay from the armed forces.

"The first year we were at a wreath-laying ceremony, we caught the American Legion and VFW by surprise," said Hank Thomas, the national treasurer with American Veterans for Equal Rights, or AVER, the country's largest gay and lesbian veterans organization.

"But when they saw our Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars, their attitudes changed immediately," said Thomas, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who was wounded in Vietnam. "Last year, when we showed up, it was as if we were old friends."

This Memorial Day, Thomas and other comrades will be participating in official festivities in Washington for the third consecutive year, at the invitation of the U.S. Army.

Feelings kept secret Cleghorn, now 41 and an attorney, grew up in a working-class family and joined the ROTC as a way to better himself economically. His first time on a plane was also his first jump.

Three years into his tour of duty, Cleghorn acknowledged his feelings for other men but knew he must keep it a secret. It wasn't easy to find his niche.

"You didn't feel at home in military circles--which believed your mere presence would disrupt morale--and you didn't fit in the gay community, either," he said. "Vets are more conservative and believe in serving your country in uniform ... which is not a value you generally find in the broader gay community."

To bridge that gap, many have turned to AVER. Just two years ago, there were eight chapters; today there are 13, with five more forming. The Chicago chapter, started in 1992, has 50 members.

Last weekend, almost 100 gay veterans--from a 79-year-old who fought in the Battle of the Bulge to returnees from the Middle East--convened at a Washington hotel.

"You come home so invigorated," said James Darby, 72, a Korean War veteran who lives in Hyde Park. He found the accounts of three high-ranking officers--two brigadier generals and a rear admiral--"especially moving."

Establishing a national monument to gay veterans is Thomas' particular passion. The Virginia Military Institute graduate received the Purple Heart for gunshot wounds suffered in 1967, during his second tour of duty in Vietnam.

"We need some kind of marker that shows we've always been on the front lines," said Thomas, who plans to make a formal request in the next few months for a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

For now, there is the final resting place of Leonard Matlovich, a highly decorated airman who died in 1988 and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery, a private burial ground owned by the Episcopal Church in Washington.

Etched on his tombstone: "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

There are other modest sites where gay soldiers are immortalized. One such tribute can be found in Desert Memorial Park, a cemetery in the Palm Springs, California area.

Tom Swann, 46, who did a stint in the Marine Corps during the 1970s, was a driving force behind the marker, put up in 2001. "I don't think anyone who sacrificed their lives should be forgotten," he said.

Swann also is the founder of Post 66 in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the first gay Amvets post in the United States. The group's state leadership had no objection.

"We're open to everyone...," said Albert Sa, Amvets executive director for California. "A vet's a vet."

The national American Legion expressed the same sentiment. "The American Legion has always welcomed any veterans of any wartime era," said spokesman Joe March. "As an organization, the qualifications are that you serve in the U.S. armed forces during a period of war and that you were discharged honorably."

Others remain staunchly opposed to the idea of recognizing gay veterans.

"The law already says homosexuality is not compatible with military service, so how can we recognize gay veterans?" said Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent organization that concentrates on military personnel issues and opposes any participation of gays.

Dispute over marker:

Last summer, controversy arose in Sacramento over a paver in a public park reading "in honor of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Veterans."

State Sen. William "Pete" Knight, who died earlier this month, wrote a letter calling for the "dishonorable discharge of this offensive `memorial.'"

Despite the opposition, the paper was installed.

Knight's spokesman David Orosco thinks a national monument will never fly. "Judging by what I saw happen in California--the most liberal of states--I believe there will be a huge outpouring of opposition on this issue," Orosco said. "There should just be veterans."

Gay veterans say the war in Iraq, more than anything else, has them reflecting on their own military experiences. It may also help explain their newfound momentum.

"Gay troops in uniform still cannot safely speak for themselves, so we who have passed through that portal have an obligation to speak for them," Cleghorn said. "We can be their face and voice. We can take care of them ... because that's what soldiers do."