The U.S. honors those who served in the military on Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11. It is observed on Nov. 12. In San Diego, residents are paying special tribute to LGBT veterans.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” may seem like ancient history to most Americans, but the era of witch hunts and dishonorable discharges is still fresh in the minds of the LGBT military veterans who enlisted prior to 2010.
Bridget Wilson, a 69-year-old San Diego veteran who “served quietly” in the U.S. Army Reserves, remembers witnessing military agents come into gay bars looking for active service members in the 1970s. Those experiences were one reason Wilson decided to attend law school and become a military counselor at The San Diego LGBT Community Center.
For many decades, members of the U.S. military who were suspected of being gay or lesbian were regularly kicked out of the service with a dishonorable discharge – a designation that made it difficult to find a job or enroll at a university.
“They used to crank those things out routinely … and you carry that with you everywhere you go,” Wilson said.
Today, Wilson is a namesake of The Benjamin F. Dillingham, III & Bridget Wilson LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor, a visible reminder of the sacrifice and silence of many San Diego-area veterans. It’s been in place at the community organization since 2011, one year after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Forty-five names are inscribed on the wall, and 11 more will be added on Nov. 8 at the organization’s annual induction ceremony. Those names represent dozens of individual stories of pain and secrecy, said Ben Cartwright, director of community outreach at The San Diego LGBT Community Center.
The induction ceremony is a time for LGBT veterans to come together and experience a sense of community they never had while enlisted.
“Many of these people served our country honorably but never got to use the words ‘gay’ and ‘military’ in the same sentence,” Cartwright said.
The wall of honor was a passion project of Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a longtime leader and activist in the San Diego LGBT community. The center did some fundraising to get the wall up and running, but costs were minimal.
Murray-Ramirez selected Wilson and Benjamin F. Dillingham, III as the wall’s namesakes. Dillingham was a U.S. Marine veteran who earned a Bronze Star Medal while serving in combat in the Vietnam War.
After the war, he settled in San Diego and began a community-focused career that included playing a pivotal role in the development of San Diego’s light rail system. He also served as chief of staff to former San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor.
The wall of honor ceremony for 2018 will pay special tribute to Dillingham, who passed away last November.
“He never missed a veterans wall ceremony until last year when he was gravely ill,” Cartwright said.
Other notable people on the wall include gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk, who was a San Diego-based U.S. Navy diving instructor in the 1950s, and Kristin Beck, who served as a U.S. Navy SEAL for 20 years before transitioning from male to female. Beck, a former member of the elite SEAL Team 6, is now a well-known trans activist and was the subject of a 2014 documentary called “Lady Valor.”
San Diego has long been known as a refuge of sorts for LGBT service members and veterans. Home to one of the largest U.S. Navy bases on the West Coast, the city drew sailors seeking an escape from other parts of the country.
“Many people who got out of the military chose to stay here because it was safer than going back home,” Cartwright said. “We have a really big intersection between our gay community and our military community.”
Being gay or lesbian is something that still drives some young people into the U.S. military, Wilson said. If they are kicked out by their parents or ostracized by residents in their hometown, there might not be many other options.
Unfortunately, community advocates say, harassment and discrimination can persist in some corners of the military – despite the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Today, many advocates and allies are focused on trans rights and the stigma that transgender service members face.
Wilson, who has retired from practicing law but occasionally does consulting work with SPART*A, says recent statements from the White House about limiting the legal definition of gender have renewed concern among transgender service members.
“Mostly, these people just want to do their job. They just serve,” Wilson said. “The politicking around this is very uncomfortable for them.”
Caitlin Moran is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor, who has spent the past 10 years working in community journalism. Most recently, she was the community engagement editor for Education Lab, a solutions-based journalism initiative, at The Seattle Times. She also was a web producer and reporter for the news organization. On Twitter, she is @CaitlinJMoran. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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