On July 5, Brenda S. ("Sue") Fulton became the first openly gay veteran appointed by President Barack Obama to the board of visitors of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The appointment followed a career in and surrounding the military spanning an impressive 31 years.
A graduate of West Point herself (1980), Fulton did not share the fact that she was gay until well after her graduation13 years laterin 1993. The culprit hindering her from complete self-acceptance and peer group support was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). Fulton adhered to the rules as they were enforced. With the repeal of DADT scheduled for Sept. 20, 2011, Fulton is right where she belongsspeaking her truth.
Windy City Times: You were a graduate of West Point in 1980the first class to admit women to the prestigious institution. What must that have felt like for you? Do you remember your thoughts the day you graduated?
Sue Fulton: Needless to say, there was a great deal of resistance to women at West Point in those early years. Some were treated worse than othersthe smallest and most feminine women were treated the worst, so at 5'11" (and arguably pretty butch) I was often left alone. I think that West Point didn't know what they didn't know, and stumbled through those times, so I am extremely proud of the class of '80men and women alikefor weathering the storms.
WCT: It wasn't until 1993 that you came out of the closet while working on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) campaign. How did you rectify serving in the Army where you could not be "out" and living the life that was personal to you with your friends and family?
SF: I left the Army in 1986, shortly after my obligation was complete, because I was afraid to be found to be gay. For the next few years, I was out to my family, and to some friends, but the Army had taught me to be terrified of being "discovered" to be gay, that I would lose everything.
WCT: Did you ever feel pressured to come out of the closet while serving in the Army? Was there anyone there you could trust with the knowledge that you were in fact a gay solider?
SF: I was out to a number of people I trusted while I was active-duty, even when I was a company commander. When I told my first sergeanta crusty Irishman who served in Special Forces in Vietnamhe shrugged and said, "Well, that's a first time for me. A'ight." And we drove on, working very well together!
WCT: Thirty-one years later in 2011, you have become the first openly gay veteran appointed by President Barack Obama to the board of visitors of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. How did you first hear about the news?
SF: I heard that I was under consideration when Brian Bond notified me, earlier in the year. The vetting process is very thorough, so I knew for quite some time that it was in the works, but had no idea if or when it might come to fruition until the very day of the announcement.
WCT: What was your initial reaction while contemplating the historical decision of returning to West Point in this new capacity? Did you even have to consider it?
SF: West Point holds a special place in the hearts of Americans, but particularly with graduates. I have always seen the Academy as a victim, not a perpetrator of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a policy that corrupts the idea of the honor code and the ideals of respect and integrity; so my love for West Point has been undiminished (though it is not without faults!). I also have many friends at West Point, cadets as well as staff, faculty, and family membersgay and straight. Finally, in my capacity as Executive Director of Knights Out, the organization of LGBT West Point grads and allies, I have built strong relationships with leaders at West Point in anticipation of DADT repeal and the potential for us to be a valued resource.
All of which to say, I didn't think twice about being part of the board of visitors. It is an honor, a privilege, and an immense responsibility.
WCT: How do you plan to balance your new role with your existing duties as executive director at Knights Out, (an organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered West Point graduates and their supporters) and OutServe (which represents actively-serving LGBT military personnel who cannot reveal their sexual identity)?
SF: In my role on the board of visitors, I am working in collaboration with other people who want the best for West Point. We all have an interest in educating, training, and inspiring leaders of character for the Army… And Knights Out and OutServe support that interest. Diversity has long been a "force multiplier" for the U.S. military, and both Knights Out and OutServe are looking to provide any assistance we can to enhance our military readiness.
WCT: Do you believe the repeal of DADT will stick once and for all, or do we have more work to do before receiving a satisfactory and fair outcome for our military sisters and brothers in this country?
SF: Of course DADT repeal will "stick." Despite a few shrill (and increasingly desperate) opponents, Americans overwhelmingly recognize that when you volunteer to serve this country, you shouldn't be required to lie about your family or your life. They understand that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have long served in our nation's military, and it's time we treated them with equity.
That said, there is work to do. The families of our gay and lesbian service members get no support, in part due to DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], and I suspect that military leaders may be taking a hard look at that.
WCT: Do you any have thoughts on why America is so far behind other countries in the world in regards to serving openly?
SF: The United States has a powerful right-wing anti-gay, anti-abortion lobby that purports to represent Christians. While their views are shared by only a small minority of Americans, they are very smart at politics and manipulating the media, and wield power out of proportion to their numbers. These radicalsI can't bring myself to call them Christians, since their language and actions hold no resemblance to the Jesus I know from the Biblehave succeeded in gaining essential veto power over any political action. They demonize their political opponents, then cry "discrimination! bigotry!" when they incur the slightest criticism.
It's astonishing, really, how much power they have gained, and how they have succeeded in painting a remarkably centrist and even-handed President as some kind of leftist radical.
WCT: What can civilians reading this interview do to help ensure inclusive treatment of our LGBT soldiers in hiding?
SF: Coming out is the most powerful statement and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person can do, and it helps everyone, soldiers and civilians, gay and straight, believers and non-believers. There is power in numbers.
As far as supporting our LGBT troops, we have at least two major unresolved issues:
We need to take a hard look at how we are supporting their families. Do the partners of gay and lesbian soldiers (and sailors, Marines, airmen, Coast Guard members) deserve support? What about using the commissary and PX while their partner is deployed and they are taking care of kids? What about healthcare, mental and physical? What about relocation?
Are transgender veterans being treated with dignity and respect for the service they have rendered? Do we know what sacrifices they've made to serve our country? What about transgender people who are currently serving? What kinds of unnecessary burdens are we putting on them , and can we stop hounding people for things that have nothing to do with the quality of their service?
These issues may be controversial, but I hope that we will take them up sooner rather than later.
WCT: You have been on the receiving end of history, that's for sure. Do you feel like you are meant to be right where you are and have been throughout the years? Seems like you have been there at every equality-driven turnwe love that!
SF: I've certainly been luckyor blessed, depending on your viewpointand I am grateful for being able to be part of this effort. But there have been more people than I can count who have been part of this with me, and I wish each of them their fifteen minutes of fame! If you'd like to learn about a few of them, check out the OutHeroes Project at www.outserve.org/outheroes!
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been in effect since 1993 when then-President Bill Clinton introduced it as a compromise measure. It is scheduled for repeal on Sept. 20.