Archive

Posts Tagged ‘976’

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.

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.