Two years ago on Christmas Eve, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post and the Washington Note titled “When the Intolerant Kill Christmas.”
According to my friends at Huffington Post, more than half a million people read that piece. It was a deeply personal snippet not of my life – but that of a close friend – who had “come out” to his family as a gay man and who was not having an easy time of it.
My friend, who is a reserve soldier who spent six hard months this past year in Iraq and Afghanistan, is off this season skiing with the same family that had rejected him. He’s not there with his boyfriend, but his family has made major strides in accepting him and dropping the constant pressure for him to slip back to a path he never really had.
His and their struggle is not over. I know his mother, deep in her heart, still can’t accept that she has a gay son – but a stronger part of her is not allowing her to cut him off either. His brother and sister-in-law, also fundamentalist Christians, have no fear about my friend playing with their young nephew. My friend’s facebook page is filled with excellent pictures of this great kid. Progress.
Accepting people for who they are seems to me to be what Christmas ought to be about.
As a nation, we still aren’t doing that with gay men and women in the military services. We seem oblivious to the fact that literally dozens upon dozens of thousands of gays and lesbians are serving this nation in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Asia, in North Africa, Honduras and elsewhere and are hiding who they are because they will be expelled from their service if it became known that their lover or partner or one night stand was of the same sex.
My mother lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma – a conservative oil town just north of Tulsa that was one of the more important centers of oil industry development in the United States. Bartlesville’s population is around 35,000 people today.
Estimates vary, but from data in the 2000 Census the Urban Institute estimates that there are more than 36,000 gay men and lesbians in active duty – roughly the same as the entire population of a significant town in Oklahoma. The same study suggests that there are 65,000 gay men and lesbians if reserve units and the national guard are included.
My own hunch is that there are closer to 70,000 people in the uniformed military – simply based on discussions with military officers in the know at the Pentagon. The number if including guard and reserve units would probably be about three Bartlesville’s, or a city of 110,000.
But back to my friend. This year, he wanted to wear his full dress military uniform to the annual gala dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading civil rights organization in Washington focused on advancing the rights of the GLBT community.
This year, Lady Gaga opened for President Barack Obama who reassured the gay community he was with them. When one person in the audience said “We love you, Barack!”, the President quickly responded, “I love you back.”
Matthew Shepard’s amazing but earthy, put-up-with-nothing-but-tolerance parents, Judy and Dennis, were awarded the first Edward M. Kennedy National Leadership Award. The cast of Glee was there.
But I told my friend that if he did wear his stand-out-in-the-crowd mess dress uniform, full of medals he had earned fighting for this country, he ran the risk of attracting media attention.
He wanted the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to see that uniformed military were embedded throughout the US military and that they too were calling for the rights of the gay community. My friend wanted Barack Obama to see that gay men and women in the military supported him.
But by doing so, this brave and very good guy ran the real risk of being discharged from the military and becoming one of the mounting statistics of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is another great outfit fighting for the rights of discharged gay military men and women.
I convinced himself to anonymize himself if he wasn’t quite ready to pay the consequences for standing out and being himself.
American society at its best should be a melting pot, tolerant, embracing culture and yet acultural enough that most can latch their worldview into the mix and feel fulfilled. I felt terrible outlining for my friend what could be the downside of what should have been a natural and proud gesture.
We need to move forward on accepting those men and women who are sacrificing for this nation – at home and abroad – and accept them for who they are. We really do.
Despite the step by step progress my gay friend is making with his family, he is not accepted for who is in the military – and he could not walk up to the President of the United States at a gay rights dinner and salute his Commander in Chief without losing his job.
That’s intolerance – and yes, for far too many, it is still killing Christmas.
President Obama, let’s fix this soon in the new year. Make history by turning another page in the history of American civil rights.
And to everyone else who is already comfortable with the kind of tolerance we should be celebrating in the 21st century, thank you.
– Steve Clemons