It was as normal a workday as any other — a little cold outside, yes, but full with all the usual expectations and daily to-dos. So, imagine my surprise when I opened my inbox and saw an email from the White House — an invitation to attend President Barack Obama’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal signing ceremony on Dec. 22.
I immediately called my mother. After all, she’s had to listen to my political rants and raves since I was young. My childhood stint in the Boy Scouts only made it worse, instilling a strong sense of patriotism. Years later, I still choke back tears when I hear the national anthem played or watch Independence Day fireworks shows. On top of it all, I’m a history geek. I love it and live it. I studied it in college and the History Channel has kept some of my favorite TV programming streaming into my home for years.
Luckily, I was able to find some last-minute deals on flights to and from D.C. I left the office, packed my bags and made it to the Charlotte airport just in time. The excitement of this historic moment in time was nearly too much to bear once I finally got to Washington and met up with a friend who was nice enough to lend his couch for the evening. We stayed up half the night waiting on another friend to arrive and when we finally settled down to sleep — at a dangerously late 2:30 a.m. — I knew I’d have only anticipation and adrenaline to keep me awake the next day.
We awoke from our short nap at 6 a.m., hurriedly showered and dressed and made our way to the Department of Interior where the ceremony was to take place. Once we arrived, we balked: the line to get into the ceremony wrapped around the building. Though it was cold, we and everyone else gathered were all smiles.
Inside the auditorium, I noticed a veritable who’s who of the LGBT movement, Congress and federal government. Former servicemembers, who’ve been forced to carry the burden of this unjust law for far too long, were gathered everywhere. Some were dressed in their uniforms, ready to serve their country again: “Sign us up today!” one would later call out as the president signed the bill into law.
As the ceremony began, with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem, I could feel the tears welling up inside. Oh, happy tears they were! Though I’ve never served in the armed forces, it was once a dream of mine. Military service in my family stretches back generations, all the way back to the Revolutionary War. My grandfather and his brother, former Marines, both served during the tail-end of World War II and in Korea. And, when I signed up for JROTC as a freshman in high school, only one thing stood in the way of my service: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It didn’t take me long to learn I’d never have the opportunity to serve my nation. After just one year in JROTC, I dropped it and my dreams for service.
Years later, I’d be among dozens of LGBT young people across the country who would attempt to enlist in the armed forces, though doing so openly, honestly and with integrity. The action, Soulforce’s 2006 Right to Serve Campaign, returned the same results in each of the 30 cities where young, able-bodied and patriotic American citizens said, “Sign me up! I will serve!” — we were all turned away.
I thought of that moment — the disappointment and sadness and oppression — as President Obama spoke on Dec. 22. This is a speech to remember, I thought to myself as he began.
As the president finished I nearly lost myself: “For we are not a nation that says, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one,’” the president said. “We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. Those are the ideals that generations have fought for. Those are the ideals that we uphold today. And now, it is my honor to sign this bill into law.”
The opportunity to attend the signing ceremony was a unique one, for sure an historic moment to be treasured and cherished for the rest of my life. Years from now, I can see myself watching the History Channel as a special on civil rights in America comes on and a portion of Obama’s speech at the signing ceremony is broadcast.
“I was there,” I’ll say to myself. Undoubtedly, I’ll cry. But these tears, I’ll gladly take now and in the future. What a great moment in history we’re in — when some of the final legal hurdles and obstacles blocking the full citizenship and participation of LGBT Americans are being lifted. We should all shed a tear in this moment and keep it in memory of all the heroes — men and women, black and white, slave and free, gay and straight — who, to borrow from Katharine Lee Bates, “more than self their country loved and mercy more than life;” those who lived and died for that most glorious of patriot dreams and gave to their nation their ultimate sacrifice to see that days like this are even possible. : :