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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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."