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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.

Andrew Sullivan’s “Familiar Feeling” — and a Qualified Defense of Obama

May 14th, 2009 No comments

Well, we’re not even four months into the Obama Administration and already the LGBT community is frustrated at the pace of developments. And, really, who can blame us, after the betrayals of the Clinton Administration and the hostility of his successor who-must-not-be-named? Here’s Andrew Sullivan, in a sobering and angry piece on the Atlantic website (“The Fierce Urgency of Whenever”):

“I have a sickeningly familiar feeling in my stomach, and the feeling deepens with every interaction with the Obama team on these issues. They want them to go away. They want us to go away.

“Here we are, in the summer of 2009, with gay servicemembers still being fired for the fact of their orientation. Here we are, with marriage rights spreading through the country and world and a president who cannot bring himself even to acknowledge these breakthroughs in civil rights, and having no plan in any distant future to do anything about it at a federal level. Here I am, facing a looming deadline to be forced to leave my American husband for good, and relocate abroad because the HIV travel and immigration ban remains in force and I have slowly run out of options (unlike most non-Americans with HIV who have no options at all).

“And what is Obama doing about any of these things? What is he even intending at some point to do about these things? So far as I can read the administration, the answer is: nada. We’re firing Arab linguists? So sorry. We won’t recognize in any way a tiny minority of legally married couples in several states because they’re, ugh, gay? We had no idea. There’s a ban on HIV-positive tourists and immigrants? Really? Thanks for letting us know.”

Steve Sanders over at Sexual Orientation and the Law Blog expands on the point, noting that some of the things Obama’s promised to do might be accomplished without legislative action; arguably, he already has the executive authority to stop the discharges under the completely indefensible “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

These points are fair, and we’re right to be concerned about both the pace of change and, perhaps as important, the weakening or outright disappearance of rhetorical commitment on central issues, such as federal civil unions; the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; and the repeal of  DADT. But the story isn’t this simple.

Sullivan himself is of two minds on this, as are many of us. He prefaces the eviscerating remarks quoted above with the following:

“[I]t’s tedious to whine and jump up and down and complain when a wand isn’t waved and everything is made right by the first candidate who really seemed to get it, who was even able to address black church congregations about homophobia. And obviously patience is necessary; and legislative work takes time; and there are real challenges on so many fronts….No one expects a president to be grappling with all this early on, or, God help us, actually leading on civil rights. That’s our job, not his.”

So, where are we and how concerned should we be?

Let me start with Sullivan’s “familiar feeling.” I’m less concerned than he is (of course, I’m not about to get kicked out of the country, either), principally because Clinton and Obama are so different, tempermentally. Clinton, for all of his obvious intelligence, was in many ways an incautious, borderline reckless, man: “I’ll just issue an order allowing gays into the military. What could be hard about that?” Obama’s endlessly analyzed personality is that of the careful incrementalist, who listens to all parties, decides on a course of action (and sometimes reconsiders his position, as with yesterday’s about-face on the release of prisoner abuse photos), and then works patiently and tirelessly for consensus. Anyone who could herd the divas on the Harvard Law Review has some accomplishment to commend his approach.

So what looks the same from one perspective — the lack of progress on gays in the military — may be quite different in underlying significance. We don’t know what Obama is doing (or thinking) behind the scenes, but I’m willing to bet it’s…something.

Not exactly reassuring, is it? I don’t have any way of verifying my suspicion on this issue, and I might be totally off. (I really hope not. DADT is just nuts; made even more so now that same-sex couples can marry or civilly unite. That legal act is now a ground for discharge under the policy. My next post will be of a conversation I had with the unceremoniously brilliant Alex Nicholson, the founder of an organization dedicated to repealing the policy, Service Members United.)

But there is movement. Let’s put this into context. For approximately forever, the only traction gay issues had at the federal level had been as a wedge issue — against us. I’m talking about DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act, not to mention the Federal Marriage Amendment (which never had a chance of passage but was conveniently unsheathed whenever an election loomed), and of course the epidemiologically and ethically indefensible ban on HIV-positive immigrants.

Now we have a gay-inclusive hate crimes bill set to pass and be enacted into law, likely quite soon. (I don’t agree that this is entirely symbolic; but even if it were, symbols matter). “Sources” tell me that there is a place on the legislative agenda this year for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Whether it will be trans-inclusive is less certain, but vital: Who most needs this protection? Not me.) ENDA has been around since, if I’m remembering correctly, the Truman Administration. Neither Sullivan nor Sanders discusses this issue, on which progress looks quite likely.

Meanwhile, lifting of the HIV ban is moving along — albeit at the glacial pace of the federal regulatory process. Again, Sullivan (first quoting):

“’The Department of Health and Human Services has submitted for OMB review a notice of proposed rule-making to implement this change.’

“Translation: we’re doing the bare minimum to make us look no worse than Bush, but we have no real interest in this and are letting the bureaucracy handle it, and we guarantee nothing.”

I think that’s too critical. HHS Secretary Sebelius acted within one week of her confirmation to get this long-overdue repeal moving through the process. As this site reports, the bureaucrats are following standard procedure here, needed to put into practical effect the legislative repeal (changing the law meant that HIV was no longer required to be on the list of excludable diseases; now it must be removed).

Imagine it’s the end of 2009: The hate crimes bill is law, so is ENDA, and the HIV repeal is lifted (in time for Sullivan, I sincerely hope; but as he points out, there are many others for whom the ban leaves fewer, or no, options). DADT continues to be assaulted, relentlessly, from many perspectives, but is still in place. Civil unions, flowering all over the country, lie beneath still-frozen soil in D.C.

Would we regard this record as one of success? Let’s see if we get there, first. And let’s continue the relentless advocacy that is finally, I believe and dare to hope, beginning to push on the hinge of history.

Equality Forum Day 3 (Part 1): “Tomorrow Hour Zero”

April 29th, 2009 No comments

The day before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence intercepted a communication known to be from al-Qaeda, boasting that “tomorrow is zero hour” (literally translated above). This possibly interesting statement went untranslated, though, until September 12. According to Alex Nicholson, who apparently speaks all living and several dead languages (and also looked like he could take me apart with his bare hands), the military was short on Arabic translators. Why? Because of discharges resulting from the “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” — but do compromise national security — policy then and now in effect.

Nicholson and fellow National History Panelist Julianne Sohn were both victims of this insane policy. Nicholson’s colleague snooped the damning information about him from a letter he’d written (in Portugese, by the way), and then reported it a few weeks later apparently out of spite. This accomplished translator, and scion of a military family, was out of a job in less than a year. Sohn had a much longer career, that finally ended when a colonel called her (while she wasn’t on active duty) to “read her her rights.” In describing this event for the first time publicly, Sohn quickly lost her composure and dissolved into tears not seen since the final of this year’s Australian Open.

Just like that, I got it.

I’m not pro-military, generally. My dad was in the Navy, but only briefly and mostly he was, er, a lifeguard stationed in the less-than-hazardous State of New Jersey. I grew up  just close enough to the Vietnam era to have breathed some of the anti-military air (which, by the way, is mostly unjustified and more than a little classist). And I’m by temperment and philosophy a pacifist (mostly). So I admit that I didn’t exactly flush with excitement upon learning that this year’s history panel would focus on “gays in the military.” But listening to these stories — especially Sohn’s — was profound and arresting. Here was a woman whose life and identity were all about the military. Now, after years of what was surely a profound struggle to manage the cognitive dissonance that results from being a part of an organization that commands your silence, it was all falling apart. Of course this is painful to call to mind. But why did this happen to her, and why are these discharges still taking place? As scholar-panelist Nathaniel Frank put it: “Wait. You’re being investigated by the U.S. Government because you’re a lesbian? It’s 2009!”

Well, how did we get here? What justifies this ban? Frank issued “the historian’s challenge” to the audience: Step into the shoes of those you disagree with. Then see if you can understand their perspective. OK, I did. And I can’t.

Frank and panelist moderator Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) provided a thumbnail review of the history and justifications for the exclusion, which is been official policy only since the 1920’s. (Here’s the first of two book plugs from today’s Forum: Nathaniel Frank’s book, “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” — copies of which just happened to be available for purchase at the event — provides a comprehensive review of this history. It’s been favorably and informatively reviewed by Janet Maslin in The New York Times.) My simplistic take on the evolution of the military’s treatment of gay soldiers is that, as gay identity and culture became harder to  ignore, the military’s exclusionary policies became more Draconian and defensive. (In a similar vein, think of state anti-marriage equality constitutional amendments in response to a rising tide of open gay relationships.)

This cascade of policies has led to the “don’t ask, blah blah blah” policy now in force. As Frank states: There’s no evidence of any kind to justify it. It’s a remnant, a soiled selvage from an era when gays were regarded as sick and sinful. That image still has enough purchase in the military for them to be able to use coded arguments, such as “troop  cohesion,” in defense of the indefensible. Frank then raised a related point that I’d not considered: By putting gay sexual orientation forward as a ground for exclusion, the policy has the unintended consequence of putting the issue of sexuality “on the table” for all service members. “Am I acting straight enough (even though I am straight)? How will my  actions (or inactions)  be interpreted?” Does this seem like a positive effect on “unit cohesion” to you?

The policy may disappear as soon as this year, but maybe not, either. The panelists seemed to agree that Obama’s vocal support is absolutely vital; support he pledged during the campaign, but hasn’t articulated since taking office. I had the sense that their patience will run out soon. All emphasized the need for education and activism. Sohn and Nicholson have really taken up this cause with fervor, as has Frank (in a more academic but also compelling way). Sohn’s biography, detailing her impressive service, is here. Nicholson is now Executive Director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy organization for gay and lesbian military and the issues affecting them. (His blog is pretty good, too.)

At some point towards the end of the presentation, Sarvis put this question to the panelists: “Why should we care about this issue?” By the time he did, only a true and committed blockhead could have failed to understand its importance. Frank said it best: We should care because this policy “is a blemish on the integrity of our Armed services and on our entire nation.”

——–

Let me take a step away from reporting for a moment to make a broader statement. As I was listening to yet two more stirring panels tonight (OK, it’s last night by now), I had this thought: Perhaps by now I should be numb to all of this, my interest starting to flag. In fact, quite the opposite is happening. I remember that “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger him gets.” I’d say that “the more I hear, the more urgent all of this seems.”

There really is a great deal to do, on seemingly scores of issues big and small. These zealous panelists (including those on the family law panel, about whom I’ll blog after getting some sleep) who donate their time and enthusiasm to Equality Forum and countless other events, should inspire us all.