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|Atlanta LGBT activists react, celebrate repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'|
|by Dyana Bagby|
|December 23, 2010 15:29|
It was a jovial crowd that watched President Barack Obama sign on Wednesday the bill into law on that repeals “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 17-year policy that has prohibited gay and lesbian personnel in the military from serving openly.
One moment stood out for U.S. Army veteran Jeff Cleghorn of Atlanta, who was there to witness the historic event.
“My favorite moment was when Vice President Biden was speaking and he recognized Admiral [Mike] Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Cleghorn said at Manuel’s just hours after coming back from Washington, D.C., to join dozens of other happy LGBT activists and allies celebrate.
“The crowd went wild … cheering and clapping for Admiral Mullen, this straight, Navy, 4-star admiral. You’d think he was Lady Gaga. It was just amazing,” he said.
For Cleghorn, a board member of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and a leader in the fight to lift the ban, Tuesday was filled with euphoria and the end to a nail-biter of political strategy that he compared to a football game.
“It was the two minute warning in the fourth quarter and we’re on their 5-yard line. We came 95 yards in two minutes,” he said. “I feel whole.”
To view a photo album of the celebration, click here.
Danny Ingram, national president of the American Veterans for Equal Rights also went to Washington, D.C., to witness the bill signing. He said the day was a glorious one in the movement for equality for gay men and lesbians. He also got a special souvenir — one of the pens Obama used to sign the bill.
“No American soldier will ever die on the battlefield because the medic who could have saved his life was kicked out of the military for being gay,” he said to a cheering crowd and holding up the pen victoriously.
Other Atlantans on hand for the signing included Molly Simmons, a member of the local Human Rights Campaign committee, and Don George, a longtime gay activist in Atlanta.
Cleghorn, who joined the U.S. Army in 1984 and left the military in 1996, recalled when DADT was passed 17 years ago and the pain it caused him for the country he served to say it believed there was something wrong with him.
“I had to lie as a condition for serving my country,” he said.
Cleghorn also couldn’t help taking a shot at Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who strongly opposed repealing the ban.
“Just this past Saturday I was in the gallery when the bill was debated. I heard John McCain and heard Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) say things that were unkind and untrue. Then I saw 65 senators … stand up for fairness and equality and vote to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and saw the look on John McCain’s face and couldn’t have been happier.”
‘Now we can say goodbye’ to DADT
Jay Matthews, 66, did not attend the signing but made sure to show up for the Wednesday celebration in Atlanta.
He retired as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, flying B 52s before moving on to teach ROTC. Being a part of the celebration last night was a day he has been waiting for a long time, he said.
“I think [the repeal] means freedom for a lot of people. There are a lot of young folk out there who would like to be in the military and serve their country but feel hesitant to do it because they can’t be themselves,” he said.
While the DADT policy was implemented just as Matthews retired, he said he felt it was the beginning of the end of discriminating against gay and lesbian military personnel.
“Freedom doesn’t always happen in one fell swoop. It was just a step towards the end,” said Matthews, a member of AVER. “But it wound up keeping people as second class citizens.”
Larry Pellegrini, another longtime LGBT Atlanta activist, is not a military veteran. But he was on the frontlines — along with people like veteran Ed Scruggs and Don George — when it came to fighting the ban. He brought to the party at Manuel’s a 1991 Queer Nation poster made for the march on the Pentagon in 1991 stating, “Indefensible Homophobia” and “50,000 queer heroes served in the Gulf — Repeal the Ban Now!”
Pellegrini said he plans to donate it to the Atlanta History Center.
“I’m glad I saved it,” Pellegrin said of the poster. “Now we can say goodbye. I didn’t think it would take this long. I certainly knew we would make history and get equal treatment for the military. Of course we’re still working on other jobs.” He also said AVER member Ed Scruggs, who died in November 2009, was a huge force in rallying local protests to the ban as well as driving groups of people from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., for the protest in 1991.
And while the repeal signed into law allows gay and lesbian service members to serve openly, transgender individuals are still banned. Monica Helms, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association, said she and other transgender veterans want to make sure the “T” is not left out.
“This is a wonderful day, a day to celebrate a major historical event that we don’t often get to see,” she said Wednesday. “This a piece of legislation that affects all Americans.
“But we are still not done. When implementation is finished, I hope all the organizations [who fought against DADT] will turn their attention to trans people being able to serve openly,” she said.
Historic event worth celebrating
Kevin Blaesing, a decorated U.S. Marine before discharged from the military under DADT, was outed by a Naval psychologist when he went to her asking for help because he was struggling with his sexual identity.
“I was discharged and reinstated in 1994. Then I was denied reenlistment and finally booted out of inactive reserves for being gay in 1996,” he said.
“For me, the military was going to be a 20-year career. Today is justice being served,” he said.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said that repealing DADT has been on of the most popular issues among LGBT Georgians.
“Seventeen years ago when it was first enacted there were activists that dogged Sen. [Sam] Nunn telling him how wrong he was. Our tactics have changed, have gotten more sophisticated, and ultimately proven victorious,” Graham said Wednesday.
That a stand-alone bill would pass in Congress with bipartisan support is also significant, Graham said.
“That is historic, that is important and that’s worth celebrating,” he said.
Gay organizations that fought for the repeal of DADT said it’s important for gay service members to not come out of the closet yet. The law needs to be implemented still and that will take several months. Cleghorn said he expects the law to be implemented by the end of the first quarter of 2011. In the meantime, however, gay people in the armed forces can serve proudly knowing they have the backing of their government.
“The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can hold heads their heads higher,” Cleghorn said.
The event was hosted by Georgia Equality, Human Rights Campaign, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, American Veterans for Equal Rights, Transgender American Veteran Association, Georgia Log Cabin Republicans, and Georgia Stonewall Democrats.
To view our photos from the celebration, please click here.
Top photo: Danny Ingram, national president for the American Veterans for Equal Rights, holds up one of the pens President Barack Obama to sign the bill repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' into law. (by Dyana Bagby)
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