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Pride & patriotism 

The fight for the right to serve

Page 4 of 6

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Cleghorn's confident "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will soon be repealed.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.

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