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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.

Iowa Marriage Decision: Further Thoughts and Some Perspective

April 4th, 2009 No comments

With the ramparts crumbling all around them, marriage equality opponents seem to be left with two talking points, which are really cris de coeur, the last howlings of a doomed defense. First, they fall back on their definition of marriage. Thus, the Iowa Supreme Court, in recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples, has spoken an “untruth.” Second,  they tirelessly remind us that, where people get to vote on others’ right to marry, they consistently vote against it (otherwise put, “courts are undemocratic”). The first is an assertion in search of an argument, while the second overlooks what is probably the central function of courts: the protection of minority rights against the vicissitudes of majority will, whim, or prejudice.

When this is the best you can do, you’ve lost the argument.

Of course, the Iowa court’s unanimous decision, portentous as it is, can’t be expected to bring a quick end to the debate. In fact, in the short run it may yet impel a few more states to strengthen their marriage bans by driving them into constitutional concrete. (For reasons cogently developed here, it’s somewhat unlikely that Iowa’s own constitution will be amended in this way. It certainly won’t happen soon.) Nonetheless, the opposition to marriage equality is starting to seem like a last stand. (Remember the Alamo?) Perhaps this commentator is right in thinking that a “tipping point” may just have been reached:

Moving from politics back to law: The Iowa court shoved the debate towards conclusion with its brisk and effective dismissal of the state’s arguments. I was especially struck by how the court, echoing the California Supreme Court’s decision from last year, gave no credence at all to the vague speculation that marriage equality will somehow harm the institution “in the long run.” And by now courts have seen just about enough of the  “virtual equality” promised by the civil union — Iowa would have no truck with it, and all three of the states that currently have it  (Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire) are likely to take the marriage equality plunge very soon.

The court’s willingness to address the religious argument directly will prove important, too. I read the point to be this: “We  respect religious opposition to same-sex marriages, but you need a properly public, secular reason to exclude people from a privileged institution.” That is a thoughtful and respectful response to citizens who sincerely oppose marriage equality for religious reasons, or because of a more general unease. Both of these sentiments were poignantly reflected in the comments of one Iowan:

“Diane Thacker’s eyes filled with tears when the ruling was read to a crowd that had gathered outside the Iowa Judicial Building.

‘Sadness,’ she whispered. ‘But I’m prayerful and hope that God’s word will stand.’ Thacker said she joined a group of gay-marriage opponents ‘because I believe in the marriage vow. I can’t see it any other way.'”

With respect to Ms. Thacker and so many like her, do we really want to deny basic equality on this kind of basis?1 Here’s a quote I’ve always liked, from a California tort case:

“No good reason compels our captivity to an indefensible orthodoxy.”

Finally, I find myself asking yet again: How much energy can opponents justify expending on this issue? In Afghanistan, a law is passed that sets back women’s rights (and arguably permits marital rape); in Iraq,2 gay men and condemned are killed for their “perversion.” I could go on and on.

Yet stopping the marriages of gays and lesbians is worth all of this time and effort? Go build a house, or something. You’re not going to stop marriage equality in any case.

  1. This, by the way, is a “rhetorical  question.”
  2. Nb., the nation we liberated from a dictator.