The first federally approved monument honoring LGBT veterans will be dedicated Monday, May 25Memorial Dayat the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois, one hour south of Chicago.
The monument, which was spearheaded by Stanley J. Jenczyk, junior board member of the Chicago chapter of the American Veteran's for Equal Rights ( AVER ), was approved late last year by Ronald E. Walters, interim undersecretary for memorial affairs.
"When I went to check out the monument's progress this past week, one of the co-owners of the company who is making the monument, John Gast, handed me the Navy medallion that will be affixed to the monument," said Jenczyk. "John didn't know that I was a veteran of the Navy and when I told him that, both of us thought it was kismet that he showed me this medallion out of the five other medallions that will be affixed to the monument. Holding that medallion in my hand moved me and reminded me of my service to this great nation. I've waited for four long years to see this monument for LGBT veterans come to fruition. This ceremony will be a fulfillment of America's promise of honoring all who have served in every branch of the military."
"This is the first monument for LGBT veterans created by LGBT veterans that will be dedicated at any cemetery in the National Veteran's Cemetery System," said Chicago-AVER Vice-President/Secretary James Darby. "I never believed anything like this could've happened because we've been discriminated against for so long in many areas of life including the military with the now-defunct Don't Ask, Don't Tell ( DADT ) policy. This ceremony is going to be an incredibly emotional experience for all of us."
The ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. along and within the Memorial Walkway and will feature music by the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus; blessings from Rabbi Cindy Enger, Fr. Chris Myers and Rev. Wayne Bradley; remarks from elected officials including Rep. Robin Kelly ( whose district includes the cemetery ), and a Flag Line led by members of Organized Chaos Chicago ( OCC ), some of whom are active duty or veterans of the military.
"Organized Chaos Chicago continues to evolve into the type of organization that I'm proud to be a part of. We support nonprofits through our rides, fundraising and volunteer efforts," said Kathy Guzman, president of OCC. "Being associated with AVER with this dedication ceremony adds a strong and respectable partnership to our diverse resume, a partnership we hope to nurture throughout the years."
Prior to the ceremony, OCC will receive AVER veterans, distinguished guests and other guests/participants attending the ceremony and will stand as flag bearers at the entry way of the Memorial Walkway and along the pathway leading to the monument site. OCC members will wear a rainbow bandana tied around their right upper arm as a way of honoring the LGBT members who are buried at that cemetery.
Army Major Melinda M. Rayter, who organized OCC's involvement in the ceremony, is an active duty nurse anesthetist for the 909 Forward Surgical Team, AVER member and OCC prospect. Rayter will serve as the officer in charge of the Flag Line while her wife Flo Rayter, civilian and OCC member, will serve as the director of the Flag Line during the ceremony. The non-commissioned officer in charge of the Flag Line will be Army Staff Sergeant Laura Bulvas, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I would be happiest if some LGBT veteran who had to serve under the burden of DADT throughout their entire career would be inspired to come to the monument ceremony so that they could stand in the flag line and be proud, validated, recognized and welcomed home by their own community," said Rayter. "I'm hoping that the Flag Line becomes a part of an annual Memorial Day tradition that recognizes the sacrifices and contributions that the LBGT community has made in the service and defense of our nation."
"My role will be to represent all of my LGBT brothers and sisters past, present and future who have served in the Armed Forces," said Bulvas. "Many of my brothers and sisters were dishonorably discharged or lived a life in secrecy due to the fact that their sexual orientation wasn't permitted in the Armed Forces, resulting in some cases in losing all their rights to medical and educational benefits and pensions. I'll stand there proud on Memorial Day to represent all those to whom this monument represents."
"I've served for 13 years and I couldn't be more proud of our armed forces. In that short time, I've seen tremendous strides in recognizing that all whom have served are equal," said Staff Sergeant Diana Cantu-Army Reserve; veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, OCC member and Flag Line participant. "The U. S. military should serve as an example of positive change towards inclusion for all, even in the oldest of institutions. I'm honored to represent Organized Chaos Chicago for this historic dedication. May it always stand as a reminder of how far we have come as a country."
"This event serves as vindication for the time I spent in the Army being forced to lie about who I was and for the years I spent living in fear of being persecuted just for who I was and who I loved," said Army Captain Rachael Travis; veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom- Afghanistan, West Point graduate, OCC member and Flag Line participant. "It's still extremely painful to me to know that I was good enough to die for my country, but at the same time that same country would not hesitate to punish me for loving who I loved. To me this ceremony serves as a great reminder for how far we've come, but how far we still have to go to address many of the injustices that I witnessed during my time in the service."
For example, the military is still grappling with the full inclusion of openly transgender service members.
LGBT service members served throughout the history of the U.S. military. During some of that time, gays and lesbians served under an outright ban supported by regulation stating that homosexuality was incompatible with military service ( the bans did not deal separately with transgender people ). After the policy was challenged and became an issue of public debateand it became a campaign issue for Bill Clinton in 1992a compromise "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was instituted after Clinton signed the bill into law in late 1993. The new policy was supported by an actual law, so repeal had to be sought through the Congress and the courts. Nearly 14,000 services members were discharged before the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Barack Obama. Work on open trans inclusion continues today.
The monument is intended to replace the history of disregard and disrespect with recognition.
It will consist of a black granite centerblock holding a pink granite triangle, centered in a pink granite wall displaying, in bronze, the service seals of the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines.
It will be inscribed with the words, "Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have served honorably and admirably in America's armed forces. In their memory and appreciation of their selfless service and sacrifice, this monument was dedicated by Chicago Chapter American Veterans for Equal Rights 'AVER' ( … with liberty and justice for all )."
Guests are encouraged to arrive at the site no earlier than 1:30 p.m. for the ceremony. A free bus will be provided by AVER for transportation to and from the cemetery at the Center on Halsted. Boarding will begin at 11:30 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. Those wishing to ride may RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or (773)752-0058.
No RSVP is needed to attend the ceremony.