Alex Nicholson followed his father's footsteps when he joined the Army at 19, intending to have a military career. Because he spoke five languages, including Arabic, he became an intelligence interrogator.
He joined knowing he was gay, but believing the Army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy would still make that career possible. He didn't plan to tell, and he didn't expect anyone to ask. A year after he enlisted, Nicholson was outed by another soldier, and his military career was over.
That's when he realized that "don't ask, don't tell" really means "don't ask, don't tell, don't happen to be found out, anytime, any place, any way."
Now, Nicholson heads an organization of gay and lesbian soldiers and veterans called "Servicemembers United," working to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly. The U.S. House voted this week in favor of repeal. The vote in the Senate next month is expected to be close.
President Obama announced his support during his State of the Union address, saying "it's the right thing to do." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agrees, but wants to wait till the military is good and ready to make the change.
Nicholson thinks the majority of the military is ready. He cites a Zogby poll showing more than 70 percent of soldiers would not have a problem serving alongside a gay comrade. He has a lot of other statistics showing the price the military pays for requiring gay soldiers to hide who they are: "13,000 fired, 4,000 left on their own because of the excessive burden of serving under a law like don't ask, don't tell, over 300 critical language specialists fired ... who are critical to our national security efforts. There is really no way to fully quantify the cost of this policy."
And, he points out, these limits are in effect during a time when the military is desperate for soldiers.
Some wonder why someone who's gay, knowing the military's discomfort with it, would want to join. Nicholson's reasons are the same as every other soldier's: "I grew up in a military family, you get to do some really amazing things, there are opportunities for college money, and opportunities for travel - a lot of things you're not able to do when you come from a small town in South Carolina with two stoplights."
Nicholson was in Missoula recently to share his story and screen a documentary, "Ask Not," about the current policy. In the documentary, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Nicholson is lambasted by a caller to a radio call-in show, who concludes his comments by saying, "It comes down to this: I'd rather be in a foxhole with John Wayne than Liberace."
Nicholson responded, "You know what, if Liberace can shoot better than John Wayne, then that's who I want in the foxhole next to me, and that's who everyone else should too."
Nicholson also likes to quote the late conservative Barry Goldwater, who favored allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Goldwater said, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight."
Nicholson is confident the U.S. military will join other countries such as Great Britain and Israel, and allow openly gay soldiers to serve. If they can shoot straight, he's equally sure it won't be a big deal.
Sally Mauk is news director at KUFM, Montana Public Radio, in Missoula. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column will appear twice monthly, on Saturdays, in the Missoulian.