|Drum Major Mike Wong salutes the troops during the Veterans Day Parade. Photo by Marti Phillips.
Ever since Obama signed the Donâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell (DADT) Repeal Act last December, the nasty little Clinton-era devilâ€™s deal has been dying a slow, bureaucratic death. Enforcement of DADT was finally shut down September 20, 18 years after it was launched. For roughly eight weeks now, gay and lesbian service members can serve openly for the first time since Harry Truman was president.
This being San Francisco, the Veterans Affairs Commission decided to mark the occasion with a gay marching band. At their invitation, we San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band members pulled out our rainbow flags and our rainbow-trimmed uniforms and led last Fridayâ€™s Veterans Day Parade, the first time an openly LGBT group has done so.
Including LGBT folk in the parade was more of an Itâ€™s-About-Time-You-Caught-Up-With-Us moment than a true break with history. Our cityâ€™s Veterans Day Parade has welcomed the LGBT community for decades, even when the military has not. Thanks to longtime parade coordinator Renie Champagne, himself a WWII veteran, the Band was invited to march in every San Francisco city parade including this one since its start in 1978. Considering LGBT groups are still barred from marching in NYCâ€™s St. Patrickâ€™s Day Parade today, thatâ€™s a remarkable testament to the progressive spirit of this city.
â€śItâ€™s just the right thing to do,â€ť Lt. Colonel Wallace Levin, this yearâ€™s parade coordinator, said of dropping the ban to the San Francisco Chronicle. â€śFuture generations of Americans will look back on this issue and wonder what all the fuss was about.â€ť
The Band has marched in this parade many timesâ€¦ as has Alexander Hamilton Post 448, the only American Legion post comprised of LGBT veterans, fighting for their rights since 1984â€¦ as have representatives of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, like Commander Zoe Dunning who has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the damage caused by DADT and to raise funds to legally defend people harmed by itâ€¦ as have LGBT politicians, like Senator Mark Leno. So this parade has done Gay for years now. Still, the organizers wanted to send a clear, rainbow-festooned message of support for lifting the ban, and they tossed the group with the most rainbows out front to send it.
Apparently, the media got the message. As we lined up for the parade, we were swarmed by news cameras and microphones. Three of the Bandâ€™s military veterans â€“ Steven Keys (U.S. Navy â€™66-â€™69), Gary Sponholtz (U.S. Navy â€™78-â€™84) and Neila Waters (U.S. Army â€™77-â€™81) â€“ marched this year. Not only was it their day to be honored, theyâ€™d also had combat training, so we threw them to the media. Seriously, we march in this parade to honor our veterans and to support LGBT service people in the larger community, so it meant a lot to see them receive the attention.
Once the parade stepped off, we left the news crews behind, and the crowd thinned to small groups toed up to curbs along Market Street.
Throwing a military parade in a town with pacifist roots like San Franciscoâ€™s must be a tough job. Last year, Levin noted that crowds four to five people deep lined Market Street to see the SF Giants parade up Market Street, while folks who risk their lives through military service are lucky to attract a tiny fraction of that. This year for the first time in years, the parade was held on true Veterans Day, Friday and a work day for many people. That couldnâ€™t have helped, nor did the gray drizzle. There were long stretches of empty sidewalks where I realized we were really marching for each other, rather than an external audience.
Then we discovered our audience. A woman in a University of Oregon anorak stopped us at the end of the parade for a picture. She and her partner had followed us the entire parade route. Markel Harris told us sheâ€™d been discharged from the Army in 1994 during the early witch hunts of DADT. In an email the next day, Markel wrote after having her life turned upside down for years by the harassment that followed her coming out to her superiors, it was hard to believe in her heart that DADT was done. When she read that a gay group was leading the Veterans Day Parade, she decided she wanted to see that piece of history herself.
â€śI hoped seeing the rainbow flag lead a Veterans Day parade would provide closure,â€ť Harris wrote. â€śIâ€™m grateful in my lifetime to see a Veteransâ€™ Day when gay and straight service women and men can feel our appreciation for their service to our nation. A moment I will never forget and truly an honor to witness.â€ť
As we celebrate the end of DADT, itâ€™s easy to want to slap high-fives and head for the showers. With transgender persons excluded from any anti-bias language related to military service, with legal partners and spouses of LGBTQ service members not granted the same rights as those of straight service members, and with a full slate of Republican candidates pledging to reinstate DADT if theyâ€™re elected, Markelâ€™s unsettled feeling about DADT not being finished could be prophetic.
Markel Harris and Zoe Dunning and Dan Choi stood with all of us when they risked their careers to challenge the discriminatory practices DADT protected. We need to stand with them to make sure DADT stays dead.