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A Conversation with Alex Nicholson

May 19th, 2009 No comments

Here’s something to think about:

Getting married, or civilly united, as a same-sex couple can get you discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As the New Jersey Civil Union Commission Report pointed out, declaring that you’re in a civil union is actually “worse” (read: more hazardous) than saying “I Got Married!” — since civil unions are limited to same-sex couples, that simple speech act will do you in. You might be able to get away with saying you’re married, at least until someone asks you “to whom” (and you dare to answer truthfully) or until someone finds out that you’re “gay married.”

At least these acts of commitment are solid evidence that one has a same-sex orientation. Contra the reading of Anne Rice novels, or the possession of art that’s seen as “too lesbian”; these have also passed for “evidence” in the administrative hearings that often lead to discharge for “violation” of this policy.

This last bit of information came courtesy of Alex Nicholson, former Army (multi) lingual “human intelligence collector” discharged under the policy when another soldier discovered his “gay” letter — written in Portugese. He’s the founder and Executive Director of Servicemembers United (“SU”), the primary mission of which is to advocate for the repeal of the DADT policy.

Among the “human intelligence” Nicholson was able to collect surely would not have been a justification for the DADT policy; in fact, there’s not a shred of evidence in support of it. No, this document from former officers no longer serving isn’t evidence; worse, the embedded “Issues Overview” is a distressing hash of homophobic arguments that I’ll address in an upcoming post. For now I’ll just mention that the world is changing more quickly than some retired soldiers know or want to acknowledge. As explained here, that other bastion of presumed heterosexuality, the Greek fraternity/sorority system, has also undergone rapid transformation. (The writer describes her experience at the College of William and Mary, which I also attended. When I was there, in the 1970s, we were all living under “don’t ask, don’t tell. That doesn’t mean there were no same-sex acts. In fact, one of the fraternities had a reputation as being the one to join if you were so disposed! Is this a digression? Not really; a socially enforced (then), or legally required (now, under DADT) invisibility doesn’t “solve” “the gay problem”; it simply drives it underground.)

I recently had a long sit-down with Alex Nicholson, whom I’d briefly met a couple of weeks ago at the Equality Forum event for which I was blogging. Between an appearance on National Public Radio, a screening of the documentary “Ask Not” (which features him among others; see it June 16 on PBS) and a likely appearance on Campbell Brown’s CNN show, he graciously spent a couple of hours with me discussing all manner of things; some related to his organization and its mission, some about his life and background, and some general chitchat (a mutual specialty, it seems).

Alex grew up an only child in South Carolina, the son of a military dad, and left college after one year to join the Army. I asked the obvious question: “Did you know you were gay then?” Yes, he did. Well, then, why on earth join the military? His answer should have been unsurprising: “It was a non-issue in my head.” He knew of the policy, but wasn’t educated about it and somehow didn’t think it would be much of a problem. He might have been right, even though it didn’t turn out that way. The DADT policy is unclear, and randomly enforced. Some can go years with many fellow soldiers knowing they’re gay, while others are pushed out quickly. This inconsistency itself is enough to alert reasonable people that the policy ain’t right.

Alex Nicholson and his colleagues at Servicemembers United are doing something about it. When he founded the organization three years ago,  he followed the “do it yourself” model that seems to be the signature talent of millenials. Without funding,  SU established a website toehold, and then leveraged its influence through a series of ad hoc projects and initiatives co-sponsored by different, better established organizations. For example, SU created “the 12000 Flags for 12000 Patriots” campaign and then invited participation from the Human Rights Campaign, the (evil) Log Cabin Republicans, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “12,000 Flags” marked the shameful fact that 12,000 able servicemen and servicewomen had been discharged within fourteen years of the enactment of DADT. Here’s Alex, speaking at the event:

SU work is more of a calling than a job. Alex and his partner, co-founder Jarrod Chlapowski, work well into the night — for no pay! (There is no paid staff, still.)  It seems as though their work is starting to claw its way into the collective consciousness. The issue is everywhere, lately, and Presidential press conferences and briefings continue to feature awkward circumlocutions on when and how DADT will finally be given an indecent burial. (Jon Stewart is predictably devastating on the issue here; points out absurdity of our different policies on torture, release of torture videos, and DADT). In the midst of this, Alex Nicholson continues to work on his Ph.D. dissertation in Political Science for the University of South Carolina. The topic is one you might have expected to interest him: How people move from passive to active support of social movements, with emphasis on the involvement of non-affected supporters (e.g., men for feminism, straights for gay rights).1

So, does he want to become a professor? He’d much rather…rejoin the military. He hopes to attend law school, preferably in D.C., where he’s now located, and then join the JAG Corps.  After our long and interesting conversation, I somehow didn’t find this surprising at all. SU exists because Alex Nicholson and others have not given up on an organization that, even now, would rather not acknowledge their existence. That’s persistence.

  1. I’d say that everyone is affected by whatever happens to everyone else, but I understand the point to be about direct effects.

Getting out of my Chair

April 22nd, 2009 No comments

Next week, I will violate what appears to be a cardinal rule of blogging: Never leave your seat to do any actual investigating of your own. Simply rely on other sources, then synthesize what they give you and turn it into something…wonderful (once in a while, if you’re lucky).

I’m going to be the “official blogger” of Equality Forum. (If you don’t believe me, just go here and view my dopey face in the left column.) Equality Forum, which takes place every year in Philadelphia at this time, is “the largest annual national and international GLBT civil rights forum.” Events begin next Monday (4.27) and run through Sunday, May 3. Once again, the organizers have assembled a ridiculously accomplished and interesting array of panels and speakers, on topics ranging from gay families, to politics, to legal developments, to religion, to the special challenges faced by racial and transgendered minorities. I’ll be hitting as many of them as possible, reporting on the events and then interviewing panelists. “Blogging meets feature journalism,” I’d call it. For a list of all events, go here.

I’m especially excited about the Tuesday evening conversation with Bishop Gene Robinson (who, as Jon Stewart noted, can “only move diagonally”)  and the Saturday evening dinner honoring San Francisco Mayor (and newly declared gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom  and The New York Times.

I’d like to thank Malcolm Lazin, founder and  Executive Director of Equality Forum (and long-time LGBT advocate), for this opportunity, and Chip Alfred and Ben Perry for their logistical work and support in making this happen.

For the rest of this week, I will mostly be doing my usual blogging on a number of diverse subjects (with appetite-whetters from Equality Forum as they arise). Then, a week of blogging devoted exclusively to the Forum!

As always, your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Categories: blogs, Equality Forum, Gay Rights Tags: , , , , ,

Comments Welcome

March 30th, 2009 1 comment

It turns out (to my surprise)  that no one was able to comment on posts until just recently. Now  you can do so without logging in.1  The comment feature just “went live” and already there are several provocative comments; feel free to join in (or not).

This may also be a good time to pause briefly after two-plus months of high-intensity blogging to thank you for reading and for telling people about <wordinedgewise.org>.  Readership has been steadily growing, week by week. I greatly enjoy writing these entries and am glad for the company.

For those who are very recently reading here, and who haven’t the time or inclination to go back through the first 50+ entries, the following are the ones I most enjoyed writing, for one reason or another (in reverse chronological order):

3/22: “Floating Like a (Meta)Butterfly” (Jon Stewart v his detractors)

3/08: “The ‘M’ Words” (facetiously proposing a new word for same-sex marriages)

3-04-3/06: Several posts before, during (live blog) and after Prop 8 oral arguments.

2/17: “The Third Chimpanzee, The Winter’s Tale, and the Imperatives of Biology” (as complicated as it sounds)

1/27: “Forms Over Substance” (on my experience dealing with the Social Security Office and trying to get a change of SSN for our two adoptive daughters)

Again, thanks!

  1. This means, though, that I get lots of “spam” comments. For the last time: No, I don’t want to buy “Propecia.”

Floating Like a (Meta)Butterfly

March 22nd, 2009 1 comment

If MTV’s Celebrity Death Match were brought back,* here’s how the tilt between Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson would go:

Carlson, by dint of his superior nastiness and single-mindedness, gets hold of Stewart and seemingly strangles the life out of him –  but then the audience descries a wavering, astral being slowing descending over the oblivious Carlson. With ironic detachment, Meta Stewart reaches over Carlson’s head and pulls off his bowtie, opening a gaping hole in Carlson’s neck and causing his life force to escape (accompanied by unearthly screams, of course).

(*BTW, if you still pine for the days when MTV ran videos, I’m here to tell you that they were not as good as you remember. One word: Kajagoogoo. (Not Lady Gaga.) Through some horrible warp in the space-time continuum, they have apparently reunited.)

This imaginary joust is but barely removed from the real thing. In response to Stewart’s by-now famous flaying of CNBC blatherer Jim Cramer, the remnants of Tucker Carlson lashed into Stewart, labeling him a partisan hack and, succumbing to the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, (loosely, “since one event followed another, the second event must have been caused by the first”) accused the comedian of attacking Cramer only because  CNBC had criticized Obama’s budget. His anger barely under control, Carlson expanded his criticism, calling Stewart “sanctimonious” and saying that it was only a matter of time before he became “unfunny.”

But the problem for Carlson and for all of Stewart’s defeated adversaries is that he is funny, and in a very smart way. Can you watch the endless news cycle the same way after seeing The Daily Show’s withering cut-and-paste of countless talking heads, all parroting the same pablum? The media empire stands stripped, and Stewart’s meta-take on the whole shebang is ascendant.

When it comes to Carlson, the image of nakedness is closer to literal, because Stewart stripped him of his faux gravitas some time ago. Watch and listen to this video (from 2004); note how the bow tie stands in for what’s wrong with Carlson (et al.). Stewart might as well as torn it from his neck —  except that he didn’t need to.

Today, Carlson is at the margin and Stewart at the center: not only or even mostly because Stewart’s politics are Zeitgeist-ier than Carlson’s, but because of Stewart’s ability to tack between the wide-angle lens of ironic (and often hilarious) observation and the occasionally serious attack. He probably can’t do the attack stuff too often, but so far his instincts have been spot-on. And this infuriates people like Carlson; especially Carlson, who, as the following clip shows, isn’t even allowed to wear his bow tie any more. (Would you?)

Well, at least Carlson is willing to take on the sacred cow, as he self-congratulatorily (what an adverb!) notes. Too bad he’s the worst messenger for it, what with being angry at losing his bowtie, and all….