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SLDN Lobbies for Right to Fight
by Bob Roehr

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Pictured Brian Fricke at SLDN's D.C. benefit. He is a former Marine Sergeant who served in Iraq. Retired General Claudia J. Kennedy, the first woman to achieve three stars, and C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of SLDN. Photos by Bob Roehr

'There are 65,000 LGBT American servicemembers currently serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world; there are one million veterans,' said C. Dixon Osburn. 'And the government discharges two service members every day for being gay.'

The vast majority of gays and lesbians continue to serve 'because the commanders don't care, or the commanders do care and value our service,' the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) said at the 14th Annual Dinner, on May 13, prior to two days of lobbying Congress.

'There is nothing fair, dignified, or respectful' about the anti-gay military policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' Osburn said. That is why SLDN and their dozen plaintiffs will appeal the recent court decision throwing out their legal challenge to that policy. The nation's ideals of freedom and equality 'cannot be hijacked by our enemies.'

'I believe that Justice Kennedy meant what he wrote [ in the Lawrence decision striking down sodomy laws ] , that the government cannot demean our existence or control our destiny by making private sexual conduct a crime. Don't Ask, Don't Tell fails that standard.'

Over the past year, SLDN has saved the careers of more than three dozen servicemembers, including six who have served for more than 19 years and would have lost their pensions for being kicked out as gay.

'We believe there is a real opportunity to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell over the next three to five years,' Osburn said. Public opinion 'is solidly behind us,' and even Republicans are split with 46% supporting and opposing letting gays serve openly in the military.

The Military Readiness Enhancement Act ( HR 1059 ) would repeal that policy. It has gained 115 cosponsors in the first year after being introduced.

SLDN gave one of the Republican cosponsors, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen ( Florida ) , the Randy Shilts Visibility Award. When she announced that she was cosponsoring the bill, Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald, 'We tried the policy. I don't think it works. And we have spent a lot of money supporting it. We investigate people, bring them up on charges, basically wreck their lives. People who signed up to serve our country, we need to be thanking them.'

In a videotaped acceptance, Ros-Lehtinen said, 'I am proud to support and advance the interests of the lesbian and gay community … to protect the civil rights that are guaranteed to all Americans by our nation's Constitution.'

'Sexual orientation does not affect your performance in combat and it should not be a factor' in serving the country.

Brian Fricke, wearing the dress blues of a former Marine Sergeant who served in Iraq, spoke of how he came to terms with his sexual orientation and discovered a network of gays and lesbians within the military.

He found great acceptance among his peers who knew he was gay; 'the only ones who think it's a big deal are those here in Washington.' Still, he had to deny who he was and hide the facts of 'the love of my life. I couldn't share an important part of my life that everyone else was free to talk about.'

'I became one of the many LGBT servicemembers who decided on dignity and love.' After five year in the Marines, Fricke made the decision not to reenlist.

Retired General Claudia J. Kennedy, the first woman to achieve three stars, said values are at the core of the military. 'I believe that as an institution, our military needs to live up to the values we demand of those serving. Military leaders need to respect all servicemembers.'

The former deputy director of military intelligence recounted how one of the Army's best Chinese linguists asked to be discharged because he was gay. 'It was a terrible loss … and our intelligence operations lost some degree of readiness. We are wasting our most precious asset, our people.'

'When we say, you are good enough to serve Iraq, but not be openly gay, we break our trust with all of our servicemembers,' Kennedy said. 'It is time to acknowledge that our military is as diverse as the country it protects.'

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