In his book Fighting to Serve (Chicago Review Press, October 2012, Alexander Nicholson a former U.S. Army Human Intelligence Collector, brings to this story his unique experience as the named plaintiff on the lawsuit that got DADT declared unconstitutional. He holds the distinction of being the only individual personally involved in every single front of the war to repeal DADT, a battle the transpired in the courts, Congress, the media, the Pentagon and the Obama administration. His story represents one of the many positive gains in the battle for civil rights that could easily be lost on November 6th.
Why pen this book given the other media on available on this topic such as Conduct Unbecoming, and Unfriendly Fire?
Other media available on this topic covers different aspects of the gay military experience, such as the pre-DADT experience chronicled in Conduct Unbecoming, or covers different periods of time in the fight against anti-gay military policies, as is in the case in both Unfriendly Fire and Ask Not. Time-wise, Fighting to Serve picks up about where Unfriendly Fire leaves off, and the first few chapters overlap somewhat with the period and work showcased in Ask Not. But no other book, film, article, or any other form of media captures the political rollercoaster of the last few years of work on DADT repeal the way that Fighting to Serve does, particularly the last year. And nothing else goes into the depth that this book does, primarily because only a small handful of us advocates and activists were actually “in the room” on the issue and had first-hand access to what was going on behind closed doors. And of those who were there, I think I’m the only one who doesn’t have political loyalties or professional ambitions that would constrain an honest and thorough recounting of what occurred.
How did your upbringing as a Southern Baptist living in small rural Southern town inform your sexuality as well as decision to enroll in the Army?
I remember sitting in the pew in church as a child when the 1992 election was in full swing and afterward during Clinton’s first year in office and hearing the preacher rail against homosexuality as the topic gained attention in the news and in our public discourse. I also remember thinking at the time that he must know about me somehow, and that he must be talking directly and only to me. It was terrifying and quite traumatizing. To this day I still loathe the notion of following organized religion and pontificating clerics unquestioningly like blind sheep, because it was this type of practice that led my parents and others in the area where I grew up to mimic that same type of behavior outside of the church. All of this just served to convince me that who I was evidently was incompatible with living in a place like that and around people like that, and it pushed me away from investing in a social life there as an adolescent and into various forms of escape – books, magazines like National Geographic, television shows and movies about life in more interesting places far away, and eventually the internet. While the friends I had grown up with there during childhood moved more towards deepening their roots there and settling down, I moved more towards getting away. The military offers a chance to escape for a lot of youth today, as it always has. It may not be an easy life, and it may have seemed counterintuitive for people who knew they were gay or lesbian to voluntarily enter the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military, but for many it was still much better than where they were escaping from. And, as I explained in the book when talking about why I went into the military knowing about DADT, the policy just seemed to reasonable and manageable to those on the outside who were clueless as to how it actually worked in practice.
Why were you discharged?
The short answer is because the wrong people found out about my secret and the information leaked out further to the wrong people. I was only 20 years old at the time and clueless about how DADT was supposed to work. If I knew everything then that I know now, I think I certainly would have been able to fight my discharge and contain the spread of that piece of personal information a lot better, but once it got out back then that was it. It was “sign here or face an intrusive interrogation,” and that was that.
For those of us not in the military culture, explain what happens to a solider who has been discharged due to their sexual orientation.
The experience of someone being discharged under DADT varied widely. Some people had a pretty easy time of it and it was just paperwork with a supportive command who wished them well. Others were incarcerated and abused and terrorized when their secret got out, with some superiors and commanders themselves violating laws left and right to “punish” people for being gay or lesbian. My experience was pretty much in the middle of the road. It certainly could have been much worse, but for me at the time it was traumatic enough. I flat out lied about why I left the military early for years after I was discharged because I didn’t want to revisit the experience, and people who found out were always infinitely curious. It took years before I was even minimally comfortable discussing it, and the pro-repeal advocacy I engaged in over the years that followed served as a form of therapy for me, and I’ve heard others say the same thing about speaking out and advocating for the law’s repeal.
Why did you form Servicemembers United given the proliferation of LGBT advocacy groups already in existence?
They were not invested in working on repealing the DADT law. In fact, nearly all of them were virtually ignoring that issue, or were just giving it a token nod every once in a while. Also, there was virtually no grassroots or movement-building work going on with the issue from 2005 to 2007. The work that was going on with the issue was very Washington-centric. SLDN, bless their hearts, was working overtime to handle the enormous case load of people getting caught up in the net of DADT on active duty, and their staff was mostly just attorneys, civilian activists, and admin people at the time. You had Aaron Belkin and Nathaniel Frank at the Palm Center drawing attention to the issue and the plight of gays in the military by doing research and pushing out favorable findings on the issue, but what our community really lacked then was a large-scale participatory movement. It needed faces and stories back then, and the issue needed its profile raised, especially out in the states. We saw that it needed to get done, and we were just going to state the obvious and hope someone else got up and did it eventually. We got up and did it ourselves, and thank God we did. The issue needed years more groundwork when the caca finally hit the fan in 2010, but at least some groundwork had been done and some movement infrastructure developed when it did. The cadre of advocates we recruited, trained, and used to speak out on the issue in the years leading up to 2009 and 2010 were crucial. You can’t just wish a movement into existence overnight when a policy issue accelerates like ours did in January of 2010.
Why did you call the religious right’s opposition to DADT un-American?
The religious right didn’t oppose the repeal of DADT based on any public policy or government interest principles. They flat out opposed it based on their belief that certain “behaviors” and “lifestyles,” as they call it, violate their interpretation of their religion. And they believed that using government to forward their chosen religious point of view was justified. Even if every rational cohesion-based or readiness-based argument had been proven false, the religious right would have still opposed repeal. Remember – it was unit cohesion, morale, and combat readiness that underpinned the DADT law, not one particular sect’s religious beliefs and the use of public resources and policy to buttress those beliefs. The religious right in this country readily admits that they want our government to become a theocracy. I think that idea fundamentally violates the letter and spirit of the U.S. constitution as well as core American values. Therefore, such a goal is fundamentally un-American. As I said on a radio show one time in Knoxville, Tennessee, if they want a theocracy they should go live in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
What can allies who want to help champion other LGBT issues such as the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) learn from your experience getting DADT repealed?
I think one of the biggest lessons they can learn is that relying on the big, entrenched, establishment organizations to do all the work is a sure guarantee for a long life on the books for DOMA and other LGBT issues. The big organizations are closely tied with the political parties, and their senior staff regularly float between campaigns, party committees, and the issue-based and community-based organizations. If the Democratic Party, for example, doesn’t want to push DOMA repeal yet, there is no incentive for the big organizations like HRC to put anything beyond a token effort behind the repeal of DOMA because its senior staff don’t want to jeopardize their future political opportunities in those circles. There are strong incentives built into the system to tow the party line, on many issues and with both parties. So independent activists and movements and players really do need to be encouraged and nurtured and funded and supported. Without them, these discriminatory laws will stay on the books much longer than they have to. We saw this dynamic play out in a classic way with DADT.
Another thing they can learn is how to utilize allies and coalition partners, and I don’t just mean on the same side of the political spectrum. We began systematically using straight allies, straight troops who could testify first-hand that they did not have a problem serving beside openly gay men and women. And we cultivated relationships with straight military organizations and conservatives who shared the belief that DADT was stupid and needed to go, even if they didn’t agree with anything else in the progressive portfolio. Many other organizations and activists would refuse to even talk to Republicans or conservatives because they disagreed with them on other issues. That was beyond stupid, and I’m glad the movement wasn’t left to them exclusively because we never would have succeeded.
Others could also take note of the systematic use of intermediate-term strategy and what I called portfolio-building on the issue in target states and districts. You have to have a plan to get a vote on an issue, as opposed to just throwing something at the wall when you feel like and hoping that enough sticks to influence someone. We used combinations of in-district events to draw media attention to our issue in a certain area, local advocate identification to get people to continue the work in an area and provide a local tie and angle, local and regional op-ed campaigns to make sure the issue kept coming across senators’ and representatives’ radars, and so on. We didn’t just “call on” members of Congress to change their mind from afar or throw claims at them of times changing and support growing. We actually identified that support in their districts, brought it out into the spotlight, developed it further, pointed it out to them, and even manufactured it when we needed to do so. But the point is that we took on the responsibility of proving to the senator or representative that it was now the position of a majority of their constituents that DADT needed to go, and that they need to now get on board with representing that position.
Why did you cite Kathy Griffin’s Repeal DADT show as an example of celebrity activism?
This was an example of bad celebrity activism that’s selfish or self-centered celebrity activism. That hot mess of a show she put on in Washington was ill-timed, ill-advised, and unhelpful. If she really wanted to help, there are plenty of other things she could have done to help more. On the contrary, Lady Gaga was an example of a celebrity whose activism on the issue was smarter and more respectful. While I didn’t fully agree with everything she was advised to do, like going to Maine for a rally when we already had Maine’s senators on board with repeal under very clearly understood conditions that were in others’ hands, she and her management team were diligent in seeking out advice as to what sorts of actions and activities would actually help the cause, and she did them without trying to make a spectacle of it, profit off of it or gain publicity for herself from it all.
Briefly outline the major flaw you see in gay political groups and donors that inhibits wider support for LGBT equality issues.
Their incestuous relationships with the Democratic Party are a major hindrance for them. I understand that most of the staff support the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party’s platform, and that many of them also have ambitions within the progressive political establishment, but there must also be a realization that sometimes the Democratic Party’s positions aren’t always aligned with those of the gay community. That’s not to say that our community is aligned with the Right, by far. To the contrary, sometimes our positions are farther to the left of the Democrats’ positions, and we, therefore, need to be pushing the Democrats farther to the left. This was the case with DADT. Repeal legislation in 2010 was more aggressive a timeline than the White House wanted. They wanted the study first in 2010 and then legislation in 2011, and of course this plan was put in place before it became apparent that the Dems were going to lose the House in the 2010 elections. But the White House was also too slow to pivot in response to this new reality when it became apparent. So there we were, pushing a liberal administration to be more liberal and aggressive. There were strong forces pressuring the pro-repeal organizations to moderate their pressure, and the activists who cried wolf were treated like and portrayed as crazies and hysterics. They, and we, turned out to be right, and thank God we didn’t acquiesce to pressure and tone down our voice like others did in our movement.
The first academic report on the impact of DADT’s repeal on the military indicates there have been no consequences to having openly gay people serve in the military. But has the repeal of DADT affected those military chaplains who were concerned that serving both God and the U.S. armed forces will become impossible for chaplains whose faiths consider homosexuality a sin?
That was the most ridiculous and flawed of arguments to begin with, and they knew it. You have to keep in mind that not all chaplains felt that way or made that argument, but it was primarily the ones who sought to use their religious beliefs and their military positions to force their sect’s beliefs on others through public policy who were vocal about this sham of an argument. Chaplains are there for the spiritual well being of servicemembers, whatever the beliefs of the servicemembers they’re serving may be. They’re not there to impose their beliefs on anyone or control others’ behavior with the dictates of their own interpretation of faith or spirituality. There are a number of chaplains out there who abuse their positions and try to use their pulpits to influence servicemembers to follow their sect’s beliefs to the exclusion of others. This behavior is especially strong among the evangelical chaplains. They’re cut form the same fabric as non-military evangelists who want to use public policy to impose their sect’s beliefs on others and to control their behavior to make it in line with their personal religion. There are also many other chaplains out there who do not believe in this, and even chaplains accredited by denominations that take a neutral or supportive stance on gays. But in the end, though, chaplains are supposed to serve the spiritual needs of all servicemembers. If they want to preach against certain types of people in their pulpits on Sunday, they’re welcome to and the gay troops are welcome to not attend their service. And if a gay servicemember needs the spiritual support of a chaplain who happens to be anti-gay, that chaplain should, in theory, provide that support without thinking he has an obligation to demean or disrespect who that servicemember is at the same time.
Along those lines, how does this repeal impact LGBT military serving in countries where homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment or even death?
It doesn’t. In Saudi, for example, women driving vehicles on their own is a jailable offense. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t let women operate military vehicles on American military installations. It is also improper there for women to go outside of the home unaccompanied by a male relative or without a head covering. However, we didn’t issue camouflage colored head coverings for service women. However, if they went out into a Saudi city, I’m sure they had to abide by Saudi laws and customs. It’s the same thing with gays. We don’t generally make our troops subject to foreign sovereignty, so why would that change now? There are many things that are allowed under American law that are disallowed under foreign laws. And actually it’s the same thing with the State Department, which operates in a more integrated way within foreign societies than does the military. Gay and lesbian diplomats are stationed in such countries all the time. It’s just a highly flawed and misinformed argument for them to make that this is an issue.
How does the repeal of DADT play into the larger issue of global LGBT rights whereby the US Department of State now ties humanitarian aid to a country’s record on LGBT human rights?
I don’t honestly think a country’s policy towards gays serving in its military will feature prominently in the State Department’s assessments of LGBT equality for quite a while. In many countries, there is no formal law or policy on gays in the military. There may be an informal practice of keeping and kicking them out, and there may be other ways that they discriminate against them as far as military service goes, but I think the State Department’s focus on LGBT rights abroad is more focused right now on life and death for LGBTs abroad.
Your reaction to the controversy over the first same sex commitment ceremony performed on a military base in June 2012.
You saw a lot of novelty actions going on in the first few weeks and months after DADT was repealed, and we’ll continue to see them as long as there is a “first” to be had. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to get married on a military installation myself, but I don’t begrudge those who do and fully support their right to do so, of course, as long as their heterosexual counterparts are afforded the same privilege. I do think there is such thing as pushing the envelope on stuff like this, but who am I to tell them that they should wait so as not to upset a delicate balance with solidifying this victory before pushing forward more? Again, it may not have been something I would have done personally, but it’s their choice to pursue that and I fully support their right to do so.
Now that DADT is repealed, what’s next for your organization?
Servicemembers United was all about putting those actually impacted by the issue at hand at the forefront of the issue in the media and in Washington. There is a general impropriety about using active duty personnel for political issues of any sort, so we used recent veterans who had been discharged or who had served under DADT. Now that the biggest issue impacting the gay military community, DADT, has been resolved, the next set of issues revolves around partner benefits and the rights and privileges afforded gay military couples. So in line with our belief that those actually impacted should be at the fore, while still respecting the impropriety of politicizing active duty troops themselves, we’ve been transitioning to focusing on partner benefits and military partner issues and to recruiting and encouraging LGBT military partners and spouses to get involved and represent themselves in that debate.
In 2009, Servicemembers United stated the first ever outreach and support program for the civilian partners of LGBT military personnel. We called it the Campaign for Military Partners, and it grew to be the only support group and resource network for these “silent heroes.” Most of them remained in parallel closets, though, because they didn’t want to jeopardize their partners careers while DADT was still in effect. When DADT was repealed and repeal formally went into effect on September 20, 2011, the Campaign for Military partners changed its name to the American Military Partner Association (AMPA) and the leadership team of that operation went public and pressed forward with continuing to build the biggest network of LGBT military partners in the country. Servicemembers United is now transitioning its resources and support over to AMPA as its successor movement in light of the new set of issues facing the gay military community now – partner benefits and support – and our underlying belief that those who are impacted by the policies in question should be at the forefront of the fight and the debate.