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Activists, veterans, active duty military celebrate DADT repeal
by Chuck Colbert

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A gala tribute honoring veterans, service members, and activists in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal effort sold out this week on Tuesday evening, Sept. 18, as 1,100 attendees boarded the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, located in New York City.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, OutServe, and the Interbank Roundtable Committee sponsored the event billed "Celebrating Our Heroes."

Barbara Walters of ABC News served as emcee for the gathering, which featured marquee headliner, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.

Advocates and activists in the nearly two-decades-long effort to lift the ban on openly military gay service uniformly praise Mullen for his role in ending the discriminatory policy, pointing to his testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee, Feb. 2, 2010, as a pivot point in DADT repeal's forward momentum.

"Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," he testified.

"For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals, and ours as an institution," Mullen explained.

Aboard the Intrepid Mullen told the gathering, "It's actually pretty easy to stand up for what you believe in."

"It's pretty easy to stand up and represent the values you have held close for your entire life and be fortunate enough to be in a leadership position where that value actually crosses over in a time and a place and in a way where you as a leader can really make a difference," he said.

Mullen's wife Deborah was also in attendance.

In her remarks, emcee Walters, co-host and executive producer of the ABC's daytime show "The View," termed Mullen a personal "hero."

"You have fought for something that is right — the end of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," Walters said, looking out over the crowd, which included any number of attendees dressed in military uniforms.

"So tonight is about history. Tonight is also honoring each and every one of you who has served our nation. Tonight for the first time in American history, you have the chance to stand before this leader, an admiral, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the man who helped you on this journey and we all simply say, thank you, Sir," said Walters.

"Celebrating Our Heroes" was also a wildly successful fundraiser, bringing in $700,000, with proceeds to benefit wounded war veterans.

The celebration drew representatives from corporate America, Broadway, television, the media, and an elected official, including lesbian New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, Randy Jones of the pop disco group The Village People, and Elizabeth Birch, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT organization, among others.

"We are pausing to mark and celebrate a moment in history," said Birch. "The fact that we got Admiral Mullen to come represents the strongest symbol that we are bringing together established society and our community in a way that we couldn't have imagined 30 years ago."

"The most powerful industrial military complex in the history of the world has said 'Yes,'" added Birch. "That makes everything else inevitable. Everything else is inevitable."

Birch provided bro-bono legal counsel as DADT repeal efforts progressed under President Barack Obama.

Also on hand for the celebration was San Francisco-based Zoe Dunning, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and gay-rights activist.

"We're celebrating one year, post repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and have a year's evidence to show no ill impact on the military as we predicted," she said, pausing along the red carpet to comment on the significance of the moment.

Dunning was referring to recently released document by the Palm Center, a 50-page report, "One Year Out: An Assessment of DADT Repeal's Impact on Military Readiness," which showed show no negative impact on combat readiness, unit cohesion, recruitment and retention, assaults, and harassment. While repeal's effect on morale showed no net negative impact, morale rose for some, and fell for others, with no net overall change.

"I've worked for 18 years for repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,"' said Dunning. "It's amazing to see the successful end of this policy."

A retired out Navy commander, Dunning is the only openly gay person allowed to remain on active duty in the military prior to the end of DADT.

Asked what repeal means for active duty service members, she said, "Many friends who serve now won't have to worry anymore that this might be their last day in the military, that they might be discharged."

Also aboard the Intrepid for the celebration was Aaron Belkin, Ph.D., an associate professor in political science at San Francisco State University and co-author of "One Year Out."

"It feels like 233 years too late to the march for equality," he said, referring to the historical arm of the U.S. military's discrimination against out service. "But we made it as a community. Mazel tov."

Three enlisted Navy men from Naval Station Great Lakes, North Chicago, make the trek to New York City for the celebration, too. They were Petty Officer Second Class Lemikas Lavender, Petty Officer Third Class Brian Ruiz, and Petty Officer Third Class Jesus Arteaga — all hospital corpsman who attend meetings at Gay Lesbian and Supporting Sailors (GLASS), an officially sanctioned military group at their command.

"It's an honor be here, kind of emotional to see how the military has evolved to become more accepting" said Arteaga, who hales from Chicago's Old Irving Park neighborhood. "When I came out, no one had a problem with it."

"The support is amazing," said Ruiz of Elgin, Illinois. "It's everywhere."

Open military service for Lavender is a "teaching moment," he said, pointing to scenes like the Navy Ball and command Christmas party for examples.

"Now I can bring a man, and the reaction is, 'Tell us about you two,'" said Lavender.

Lavender, who attended his first Chicago Gay Pride, recalled the same kind of friendly interest from his boss who "came to me and on the Monday after, and asked, 'So how was Gay Pride? Glad you had a good time.'"

A native of Syracuse, New York, Lavender is serving his third tour of duty at Great Lakes. Asked what keeps him there, he said, without skipping a beat, "Chicago."

"I'm from New York and will defend it until the day I die," Lavender explained. "But Chicago — the people are 100 percent genuine. It's a clean city with always something to do."

Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


Left to right — Navy petty officers, stationed at Great Lakes, North Chicago, aboard the Intrepid to celebrate the end of DADT one year out, include HM3 Jesus Arteaga, HM3 Brian Ruiz, and HM2 Lemikas Lavender.

"Celebrating Our Heroes" emcee Barbara Walters, co-host and executive producer of ABC daytime TV's "The View."

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.

All photos by Chuck Colbert

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