SANTA CRUZ – As the sun begins to settle over the horizon to the west of where I’m sitting here in the mountains surrounded by an endless parade of Redwood trees, my thoughts as I end this Veterans Day are three thousand plus miles away thinking of a lone sentry as he, or she, guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Silently and reverently marching twenty-one steps, turning, pausing twenty-one seconds, turning and marching twenty one steps back down that black rubber mat again.
An honoured routine kept to with the military precision executed by the Tomb Sentinels of the 3rd Infantry, ‘Old Guard,’ U.S. Army twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year at Arlington National Cemetery for 80 plus years.
As a proud Canadian I always reflect on the meaning of this day, Remembrance Day (Jour du Souvenir) as it is known as in my country as we Canadians honour our veterans- those lost in the Great War and the Second World War along with other wars and those who continued to serve. The official ceremonies are held at the National War Memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
When I was a boy, I attended those solemn yet impressive ceremonies with my Da, who went to honour his friends and others who didn’t return from the beaches of Normandy or were killed in the race to the Rhine during the WW2. As a family we also came to honour my granddads who both fought in the Great War.
Yet, for over forty years I have been covering American politics living and working in the U.S. and traveling outside the country, I invariably would run into American service members from the Marines guarding the diplomatic missions abroad, to spending time with military members in regions where there were active conflicts, to time I spent aboard Naval and Coast Guard units and seagoing commands. It has been an experience that I cherish.
I have come to deeply appreciate the sacrifice of these mostly young people as well as the highly motivated dedication that they and their commanders have towards defending not only the American people but the peace, liberty, and tranquility of all humankind on this planet.
For a portion of my early career as a journalist I was unable to live my life authentically as a gay man. To come out would have meant termination of my employment with the likelihood of never being able to seek gainful employment again as a reporter unless I again stepped back into that closet. This was a bitter truth and an ugly cloud hanging over me. During this exact time, there were members of the armed forces who also were LGBTQ and would have suffered the same consequences or even imprisonment.
Those servicemembers would have also had a black mark- a dishonourable discharge, that would have followed them with negative impact back into the civilian world. Yet there were exceptions including one brave, actually fearless U.S. airman.
Technical Sergeant Leonard Philip Matlovich, USAF was a Vietnam War veteran, a recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and a pioneer in fighting for the rights of LGBTQ Americans to wear the uniform of their country.
In an era of the dawning of escalating LGBTQ equality rights battles after the event that came to represent the movement’s march for acceptance at the Stonewall Inn on that June night in 1969, Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on September 8, 1975.
He was championed by another pioneer of the movement, someone I had come to know as a friend, Dr. Frank Kameny. In fact it was Frank who introduced me to Matlovich’s story and sadly by the time I first heard it, he had died in West Hollywood, at age 44 in 1988, another victim of the terrible AIDS pandemic that took the lives of so many young gay men.
The Sergeant’s story was incredible and was for the first time a beacon for me to consider just how many LGBTQ veterans there had been whose stories would never be told. He’s buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington and inscribed upon his headstone is a rather poignant reminder of those times and the reality for all LGBTQ people who served, which included Frank who had served in the U.S. Army during the Second War, although Frank’s story took its own path as well:
“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
I have stood beside his grave numerous times over the years that I spent assigned to Washington and wondered what it was like for him to break free but also considered what trauma was inflicted on his fellow airman, soldiers, marines, sailors, and coast guardsmen, having to live in the shadows and forever keep their secret.
One year, not long after I began working in the Queer Media after decades of mainstream reporting, I was introduced to a vibrant young Army Officer, a gay Korean-American, Lt. Dan Choi, who along with a group of earnest highly motivated LGBTQ veterans and active duty personnel were fighting to have the Clinton-era anti-LGBTQ service policy of ‘Don’t Ask- Don’t Tell’ repealed.
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual- and others still who wanted to serve- transitioned to their correct gender identity, worked so hard to get that policy undone. Being present that December morning in the auditorium of the Interior Department and watching President Barack Obama with Vice-President Joe Biden next to him sign the law that forever enshrined LGB people the right to serve was emotional.
A couple of years later, after a memorial day service at Arlington and as was my custom I strolled the grounds and ran into a Vietnam veteran, who was forced by necessity and the times into living the lie. He had suffered a tremendous loss in that war that turned a beloved partner into one of the 58,390 names engraved on the highly polished black granite panels of the Vietnam Memorial, across the Potomac river from where we were standing that May afternoon.
Since the end of ‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’ I have been overjoyed at the public acceptance and ability of LGB military personnel to live together, many married after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015 that upheld same-sex marriage.
But there’s been one group of Americans whose right to serve their country has been denied or disparaged by the current occupant of the White House and his Republican and evangelical enablers. Not only did Trump ban Transgender military service but his administration has gone out of its way to inflict as much emotional harm as possible on these brave and courageous American patriots.
I am friends with many of the Trans people who wear the uniform proudly and have gone to great lengths to remain in their respective branches. I have written countless articles and spoken publicly on radio in support of the Trans military service members.
Along the way I have been greatly pained by this senseless ban that has kept young Americans of the highest caliber from serving their country just because certain societal elements- many in positions of political power, deem them unfit based on pseudo-science and frankly religious bullshit.
This year though- there is hope. Americans not only accepted a gay U.S. Navy veteran as a major party candidate for the office of President of the United States, they elected a leader in Joe Biden who I am one-thousand percent convinced will end Trump’s prejudicial bullshit ban.
My thoughts return to that solitary sentinel guarding the Tomb- was the occupant lying in honour under that marble sarcophagus LGBTQ? What of the future? Will there be a LGBTQ soldier maintaining that post keeping the faith for all those who came before?
I have faith now that with this new President the answer is a resounding yes.
Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist who currently serves as the Editor-At-Large of the Los Angeles Blade and is the producer of Rated LGBT Radio Los Angeles.