Two years ago, I wrote about Army veteran Alex Nicholson’s effort to get the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy repealed.
Nicholson had a personal reason to be involved; he is a gay veteran who was discharged from the military under that policy after a fellow soldier outed him.
Nicholson is marking this month’s one-year anniversary of gay soldiers being allowed to serve openly in the military with the publication of his new book “Fighting to Serve.” It details the repeal effort, and his part in it as head of the group Servicemembers United.
It wasn’t an easy fight. Even though the Obama administration supported repeal, it wanted to follow the military’s lead and timeline – and the military, on the whole, was in no hurry.
As Nicholson details in his book, it wasn’t until the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke in favor of repeal, that the effort began to get the momentum it needed to become reality.
“There were a number of folks who really went out on a limb and stood up for what they believed was the right side of history on this issue,” Nicholson said. “And they didn’t have to. They would have been looked at as having had distinguished, honorable, exceptional careers had they never said one word ... and that’s why I think our community is so grateful to (Mullen) and a handful of other heroes of repeal like him, for doing that.”
But of course not everyone in the military agreed with Mullen. One of the low points of the repeal fight came when the commandant of the Marines, Gen. James Amos, suggested Marines would “lose lives and limbs” if gay troops were allowed to serve openly.
“That was really disappointing to hear someone who is so revered by so many in the defense community making comments like that,” said Nicholson. “I know a lot of Marines, gay and straight, who after that comment especially, felt the Marine Corps commandant really owed our community an apology.”
Amos’ prediction was wrong – as were the opposition’s other arguments that allowing gay soldiers to be out would cause a drop in recruitment and retention, and hurt “unit cohesion.” None of that has happened, and for the military, one year into the new policy, it’s been mainly a nonevent. Even Amos now concedes it’s gone well.
For gay soldiers who want to be out, it’s a huge relief.
“We’re starting to see what I predicted,” said Nicholson, “and that is that some would want to come out right away ... and others would wait ... and still others would decide not to come out at all.”
A situation that, as Nicholson points out, mirrors gay civilians, who make the very personal decision to come out – or not – based on a variety of factors.
In the end, getting repeal to a favorable vote in Congress was close – what Nicholson calls “a Hail Mary pass in overtime.”
And it’s not the end of the fight for equality. Partners of gay soldiers – even those who are legally married in states that recognize same-sex marriage – are still denied military benefits.
“The bulk of the heavy lifting is over,” said Nicholson. “But by no means are we there, by no means are we equal, and folks still continue to fight those subsequent battles.”
Nicholson may let others fight that fight. For now, he’s exhausted but proud. And he’s aware of the hard work others did before him to make it possible for a gay person to serve their country without shame or deceit.
“I really feel for those who fought just as hard or harder on this issue back in previous eras when the issue wasn’t politically ripe,” said Nicholson. “And they didn’t have that opportunity to see it come to fruition ... and to see the bill passed. I do feel proud and privileged to have been able to be a part of it.”
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.