Pride & patriotism 

The fight for the right to serve

Stephen Benjamin still carries strong traces of his military training. He dresses neatly in a green pullover and jeans, his hair's fashionably short, and he's precisely on time for an interview at the Ansley Mall Starbucks. He sits with perfect posture, sipping occasionally from an iced mocha. His voice is matter-of-fact, yet measured.

"I knew I was gay when I joined the Navy. But I really wasn't out, not even out to myself," he says. "I belonged to an evangelical church, and the church says you can change and be straight. I tried that for years. In my senior year of high school, I had an epiphany and suddenly knew that wasn't going to happen."

Benjamin joined the Navy in 2003, the 10th anniversary of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that allows gays and lesbians to serve so long as they stay in the closet. He knew the country was desperate for Arabic linguists for the war in Iraq, so he applied to become a translator and was sent to the military's prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

Benjamin, 24, smiles ruefully as he talks about how his military career ended over, of all things, an instant message on a computer screen.

Being stationed just outside San Francisco, and far from his hometown in southern Massachusetts, enabled Benjamin to embrace his sexuality. When he found the courage to make his first public declaration that he was gay, the friend he confessed to simply shrugged and replied, "That's cool." Benjamin hadn't anticipated such a casual reaction. "It was," he says, "a liberating experience."

He studied Arabic eight hours a day for two years, and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. He was assigned to Fort Gordon, outside Augusta, to work in signal intelligence. "That's processing and translating intercepted material," he says. "That's really the extent of what I can say; most of it is pretty highly classified."

Occasionally, the linguists translated communications on planned ambushes and were able to warn U.S. soldiers before they walked into a trap. Benjamin loved his work. He was doing something that mattered.

He was at Fort Gordon almost two years. He liked his co-workers and was so comfortable that he didn't bother hiding his sexuality from fellow translators. It was no big deal.

He soon became friends with two other gay linguists. One, Davie Santos, was Benjamin's roommate until Santos was deployed to Iraq in 2006. For Arabic linguists stationed in Iraq, the classified and secure Internet network operated by the armed forces is a lifeline to home.

Benjamin and Santos chatted daily over the network via an instant messenger. One night, Santos mentioned a guy in his unit. "Is he cute?" Benjamin teased.

It wasn't a sexual conversation, but it also wasn't discreet. Anyone eavesdropping instantly would have known it was a chat between two gay men. But the IMs were private, so Benjamin and Santos never gave it a second thought.

"Then someone finds out, and your career is over," Benjamin says, snapping his fingers for emphasis – "just like that."

It took six months for that moment to arrive. The Navy's inspector general went to Fort Gordon to perform a routine audit to ensure procedures were being properly followed. Investigators picked a random day to check the computer logs. It happened to be the day Benjamin asked Santos whether the guy in his unit was cute.

Benjamin and Santos were among 70 soldiers written up for abusing the chat system. The other offenses were primarily for the use of profanity or explicit sexual language. The offenders were given a slap on the wrist – a month of extra duty. Everyone thought it was over and went back to work.

Five days after the group reprimand, however, Benjamin was called into the base's Judge Advocate General office. He was handed a sheet of paper that informed him he was being administratively separated from the Navy because he'd violated "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He was shocked; he'd thought they were going to leave it alone.

The Navy discharged Santos more than three months later – after his tour in Iraq ended.

For Benjamin, the bitter irony is that the military is desperate for Arabic linguists. And he very much wanted to fill that need. But he's not alone. According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 300 language experts have been kicked out of the military since 1993 for being gay. Figures released by Congress last year identified 58 of those as Arabic linguists.

"They sent me to school for two years to learn Arabic, and that money was wasted," Benjamin says. "The military is full of people who come from different religious backgrounds, different heritages, different cultures. People in foxholes don't worry whether the guy next to them is Catholic. Or gay. They just want to get home alive."

Jack Strouss and his fellow recruits were nervous about a new step the Army had added to its enlistment process.

Since 1919, sodomy had been formal grounds for dismissal – and criminal prosecution. Now, just before Strouss signed up in 1942, "homosexuals" were specifically banned from the military. He recalls the group being less nervous about their sexuality than about being screened by a psychiatrist. None of the enlistees had ever talked to a shrink.

But when Strouss stepped into the room, the doctor simply asked if he liked girls. "As an avid dancer who danced with girls, I looked at him and said – quite honestly – 'Of course!' He looked at the door and yelled out, 'Next!'"

Strouss laughs at the memory.

When he enlisted, Strouss knew how to type, a skill that kept him off the front lines. He was sent to Europe to work as a clerk in Gen. George S. Patton's headquarters. "There were so many of us, and it was fairly obvious what we were," he says. "There was some teasing from the others, but not much. It just didn't make any difference."

So long as gays and lesbians were discreet, they encountered no problems. "I never knew anyone who was caught," Strouss says. "It wasn't a really huge issue. Sex was just never discussed. If somebody knew you were gay, it was fine. World War II was all or nothing, and they wanted everybody who was able-bodied."

When Strouss returned to Atlanta to take a job downtown as a federal civil servant, he found a much different and more conservative climate. Gays and lesbians were deeply closeted, and under a strong stigma. Joe McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin, was building a career on fanning hysteria, not just against alleged communists, but also against people with "perversions" who worked in the federal government.

Strouss was at his desk one day when two men wearing dark suits walked in, flashed IDs, and asked him to come with them. They took him into a dark room with a single light bulb hanging overhead. When they started to throw out names of people Strouss knew were gay, he realized the witch hunt had reached him.

"Then they asked me the ultimate question – if I was a homosexual," he says. "I was always honest about that. I said, 'Yes.' They told me to go in and get my things, that I'd get my final check in the mail. And that was it."

After he got home, he walked over to Moe's and Joe's Tavern on North Highland for a beer. He ran into a buddy, who offered him a job as a manager in his movie distribution business. Strouss worked there for the next 27 years.

"I was lucky things worked out for me," he says. "But I'll never forget that room. It was like being in one of those interrogation scenes in an old black-and-white movie. It reminded me of the Gestapo."

Sgt. Danny Ingram knows the history of gays and lesbians in the military well, and has made a bit of his own.

As far back as 1957, a committee commissioned by the Navy determined that gays serving in the military didn't pose a security risk. The Crittenden Report, however, proposed no change in policy because the committee was reluctant to "liberalize standards ahead of the civilian climate."

The first soldier to challenge the ban was Leonard Matlovich, an Air Force Vietnam vet from Savannah. He lost the fight, but did wind up on the cover of Time magazine in 1975. When Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988, he was buried in Washington with a tombstone that reads: "My country gave me a medal for killing a man, and a discharge for loving one."

In 1987, one of the top six midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, Joseph Steffan, was six weeks away from graduation when he revealed to his commander that he was gay. Steffan was expelled, filed suit to be reinstated and eventually lost.

Then, in 1989, Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer – who had been decorated with a Bronze Star for her service in Vietnam – admitted she was a lesbian during a security check after she applied to the Army War College. Cammermeyer aspired to become the chief nurse of the Army National Guard and needed training at the college to qualify. She was refused admission and, three years later, kicked out of the National Guard. Cammermeyer filed a lawsuit and was reinstated when a federal court ruled the military's policy was based solely on prejudice.

The issue gained a tragic symbol in 1992, when a gay Navy petty officer named Allen Schindler was beaten to death by a fellow sailor in the bathroom at a park in Japan. According to his friends, Schindler had complained to his superior officers about harassment and nothing was done.

"It got a lot of gay folk involved who didn't have a personal connection to the issue, or who weren't particularly interested in the military," says Atlanta lawyer Jeff Cleghorn, who joined the Army in 1984 and was assigned to the Army's intelligence unit. "[Schindler's murder] was a hook to get politicians to pay attention."

One of those politicians was presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who promised to allow gays to openly serve if he was elected.

The rising gay activism also moved Ingram into action. He'd led a double life during service as a material and supply specialist, a gay man who'd pretend to be straight. He joined the Army because he has a strong streak of patriotism. "But I also joined because I just didn't like somebody telling me I couldn't do something because of who I am," he says.

By the time Clinton promised to repeal the ban, Ingram had served his four-year stretch and was in the Reserves, stationed at Fort Gillem, just south of Atlanta. Ingram, who grew up in Stockbridge and now lives in Decatur, was inspired by the sagas of Steffan and Cammermeyer, and disturbed by Schindler's murder.

"I didn't feel that I could sit by in quiet safety while others sacrificed so much for a battle that was essentially my battle as well," Ingram says. "So I decided to join the fray. Speaking up was probably the closest I came to actually fulfilling my oath to defend the Constitution in all the six years I served in the Army."

He sent a letter to his commanding officer at Fort Gillem that announced his support of Clinton's proposal. He quickly received a letter back from a major general, who essentially asked one question: Are you gay? Ingram responded in the affirmative.

When Clinton took office in 1993, his first major initiative was to lift the ban by executive order. But he ran into dogged opposition – both from the brass and from politicians, most notably Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. Eventually, the new president backed down and announced a compromise: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Nunn later pushed through legislation that codified the policy so it couldn't be rescinded by executive order. "The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability," the law says. But as long as gay or lesbian soldiers hide their orientation and don't get caught engaging in homosexual activity, the armed services aren't allowed to investigate their sexuality.

Clinton managed to spend a large portion of the political capital he'd earned winning the election, while giving conservatives a rallying point in the midterm vote that saw Republicans take control of Congress and also disappointing many of the gays and lesbians who had helped put him into office.

For Ingram, who had already "told" his commander he was gay, the new law meant the end of his military career. He says he was summoned to his commander's office one day. Ingram stood at attention and waited in front of the commander and his first sergeant. The commander was Latino, the first sergeant black.

Ingram was put at ease. He remembers a long, tension-filled pause before the commander began to speak. "Sgt. Ingram, my grandfather had to get his ass kicked so that I could serve in the military today," the commander told him. "The first sergeant here, his father had to get his ass kicked so that he could serve in the military today. Now, Sgt. Ingram, you are going to get your ass kicked so that your people can serve in the military someday."

And with that sympathetic send-off, Ingram became one of the first gays kicked out of the Army under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Erica Chesser joined the Air Force in 1998 at the age of 21. She'd just come out to her parents in Kentucky: they rejected her because of her sexuality and pushed her to join the military. "They hoped I'd be cured of it," she says.

Now Chesser lives in metro Atlanta and is totally out. "I wanted the big-city gay life," she says. But, in the Air Force, she was careful not to make her sexuality an issue.

She made sure her apartment at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota was devoid of any gay-centric items, because the military could search it anytime it wanted. "In a way, I felt like I'd taken two steps backward rather than forward," she says. "I came out to my friends and family, then had to go back into the closet when I joined the Air Force."

Chesser worked in an Air Force personnel office, and eventually realized that gays and lesbians gravitated toward one another for friendship and support. She spent a year in South Korea, where she says her supervisor was a gay man. "I liked being in the Air Force and wanted to stay. So I did what I had to do to keep quiet about it."

In 2004, she was sent to Iraq. Chesser was based out at a military airport that had been annihilated 12 years earlier, during Desert Storm, and never rebuilt. "My sexuality never came up in Iraq," she says. "The people in the crew I was with were pretty cool. It just wasn't an issue. Everybody was scared. It was just about survival."

Even though she worked away from the battle lines, the headquarters site was still the target of insurgents. Chesser recalls being up at 5:30 one morning when she heard three loud thumps. Suddenly, everyone began to shout "Red alert!" and scrambled for cover. A few second later, mortars exploded not far from the camp.

She returned to the States after spending 102 days in Iraq. The Air Force wanted her to serve more tours there. That didn't appeal to Chesser; in 2005, she decided not to re-enlist.

On her last day, she wore a T-shirt with the album cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon under her fatigues because of the cover's prominent rainbow. She also tucked a Pride necklace under her military shirt. Once she was officially discharged, she removed her military shirt and walked off the base with the T-shirt and necklace for all to see.

It was her message to the Air Force: I'm out and you can't do anything to me now.

In the 15 years since the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law was put in place, an estimated 12,000 gay, lesbian and transgendered soldiers have been forcibly discharged.

"'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' has been an expensive proposition," says Cleghorn, who sits on the board of directors of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He points to a study by the University of California that determined the law has cost the military $363 million over the past 10 years. "Unfortunately, the military is not impressed by the numbers," he says.

Cleghorn's confident "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will soon be repealed. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans supported removing the ban on gays in 1994 and 45 percent thought the ban should be continued. A recent Gallup poll showed 79 percent now support allowing gays to openly serve. And numerous other countries – including Great Britain, Australia, Canada and Israel – no longer have bans.

Even Sam Nunn said last month that it's time to review the law. Nunn, reported to be on Sen. Barrack Obama's short list for potential running mates, didn't respond to interview requests from Creative Loafing.

"There's been a generational change," Ingram says. "These are Will & Grace kids. Their attitudes are different. They see the stereotypes. Maybe when Bill Clinton tried to do it 15 years ago, the time wasn't right yet. People are ready; the policy is no longer needed."

The shift also is about economics. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 94 percent of the Fortune 500 companies now have policies against discrimination of gays. And 53 percent extend benefits to same-sex partners. That changing attitude is reflected in ever-expanding corporate support for Atlanta Pride, which this year will include Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Georgia Pacific.

"It has an impact on the military because they're having to compete with those companies for recruits," Cleghorn says. "Recruitment is at a point where the military is now granting a large number of waivers to allow convicted felons to serve. Yet they continue to keep the ban in place and throw smart, patriotic gays out of the military."

Of the two main presidential contenders, Sen. John McCain supports "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Obama wants to repeal the law, and the Human Rights Campaign reports that he's promised to reinstate gays who were kicked out of military and still want to serve, provided they are qualified.

With the possibility of Obama in the White House and a solid Democratic majority in Congress, Cleghorn says gay rights groups are preparing a huge PR and lobbying push to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" after the election. Already, a bill to repeal the provision has 143 co-sponsors in the House. Twenty-eight retired generals and admirals released a letter last year in support of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. The effort also has the support of Gen. John. M. Shalikashvili, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was put in place.

If Obama's elected, activists see a window of opportunity during the first two years of his administration. "If we have the opportunity to fight that fight, it will be a tough, tough fight," Cleghorn says. "Those who support the ban will do everything they can to keep discrimination in place. But times have changed, and the military has to change as well."

Even now, Ingram -- who is president of the local chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights -- stays loyal to the military. He marches in Veterans Day parades. He leads an annual Memorial Day ceremony at Piedmont Park, which ends with him playing "Taps" on a bugle. And he's a fixture at Atlanta's Pride parade, decked out in dress blues as he leads the honor guard.

"I don't let the policy define the military for me," he says. "It doesn't make the military bad. I was a good soldier. When it came to being a grunt, I was a good one. I served, I'm proud of it and they can't take that away from me."

Ingram will be joined in the honor guard this Saturday by Chesser and Strouss – who at 85, retired and openly gay will be the oldest veteran marching.

"Well, I won't actually be marching," Strouss quips. "They finally got a car for a couple of us; we got too old to walk all that way."

With Pride falling on Independence Day weekend, the parade holds special meaning for the honor guard this year. They hope Obama's election would spell the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"It wasn't until this current war that people saw how much it costs," Ingram says. "There are crucial people with crucial skills, like Stephen Benjamin, who are being kicked out of the military because of this policy. Had they been on the job, how many more lives would've been saved?"

A change in the law could confront Benjamin with a difficult decision.

At first the Army decided to give him a general discharge, which would have disqualified him from such benefits as the G.I. Bill. After weeks of haggling, it finally agreed to an honorable discharge.

After that, it took the Army more than two months to process his paperwork. Benjamin continued to work. Doing his job gave him peace of mind. On March 13, 2007, he was notified that his service to the military would end in 10 days.

Benjamin moved to Atlanta and found a job with a software company. Local activists convinced him to go public with his story. There was just one hesitation: His parents didn't know he was gay.

The night before the first newspaper story broke, he e-mailed them. "I laid out the whole thing," he says. "My parents are very conservative and their first reply was not very encouraging. The relationship was very rocky for about a month."

Benjamin appeared on CNN. He wrote an op-ed piece published in the New York Times. He even appeared on "The Colbert Report." His discharge gave him the freedom to be the person he really was.

"In the end, it did sort of work out for the good," he says. "But it doesn't work out good for everyone who gets kicked out. There are many people who have had their lives ruined by this policy. How can I use my Arabic outside the military? My roommate was a much better translator than me. He was amazingly good. Now he's working at Abercrombie and Finch for $7.50 an hour."

For Benjamin, Atlanta feels like home. He has a boyfriend, and they're living together. He plans to go to school full-time in the fall. But he still wonders what he'll do if Obama is elected, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is repealed and he has the opportunity to return to the military. "A year ago, six months ago, I would have gone back in a heartbeat," he says. "I absolutely loved my job. But now, I'm not so sure."

He does believe it's a decision he'll eventually have to make; it's a decision he wants to have the opportunity to make because that would mean "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed. "Martin Luther King says the arc of the universe is always moving towards justice," Benjamin says. "It needs to go away. It's going to go away. People are starting to realize they're on the wrong side of history."

Staff intern Michelle Ye Hee Lee helped research this story.

Atlanta Pride festival highlights

With drought conditions forcing all major festivals away from Piedmont Park, this year's festival will be held at the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center July 4-6. The festival is highlighted by the annual Pride Parade, and also includes concerts, workshops and exhibits.

Friday Night Divas. Features Exposé, Thelma Houston, CeCe Peniston, Frenchie Davis and more. $17.50-$50. Fri., July 4. 8 p.m. Civic Center Auditorium.

Commitment Ceremony. A nondenominational ceremony for couples. The Gay.com Plaza. Sat., July 5. 8 p.m.

AIDS Memorial Quilt Display. Exhibit Hall. Sat.-Sun., July 5-6. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Human Rights Exhibit. This year's exhibit focuses on intersectionality and local issues. Exhibit Hall. Sat.-Sun., July 5-6. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Pride Parade. Starts at the intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Road. The parade route will go west on 10th Street, then south on Peachtree Street and east on Ralph McGill Boulevard. Sun., July 6. 1 p.m.

Senate hopefuls don't tell where they stand

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" seems to be the position of some of the candidates in this year's U.S. Senate race when it comes to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Of the seven qualified candidates, only four have stated a clear position on the proposed repeal of the law.

For Georgia Democrats, the issue carries some risk: By taking a position, they'll either offend rural conservatives or alienate gay voters, who have become an important part of the party's base.

Here's what the candidates say (or don't say) about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell":

Saxby Chambliss (Republican) – Against the repeal.

Allen Buckley (Libertarian) – Advocates a "Don't Ask, Can Tell" policy, and leaving any disciplinary action up to the military's discretion.

Dale Cardwell (Democrat) – It is time to review "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Vernon Jones (D) – Against "persecution" based upon sexual orientation. No specific position on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Rand Knight (D) – A spokesman said he supports the repeal.

Josh Lanier (D) – Supports repeal and points to the shortage of Arabic linguists as a reason.

Jim Martin (D) – Wouldn't respond to CL inquires.

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