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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."
"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.
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