Nation's only gay American Legion post, after fighting for its right to exist, pushes to end "don't ask, don't tell"
The Green Room of the San Francisco Veterans Building has been taken over for the night by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charity organization that mashes Catholic imagery and drag, perhaps San Francisco's most iconic gay group. But among the drag queens and leather daddies are military veterans in garrison caps and vests decorated with medals.
This is the Sister's bingo night, an event to raise money for the various nonprofit organizations the order supports. Above the stage hangs the banner of the Sisters' partner in the event: American Legion Post 448, also known as the Alexander Hamilton post.
It may seem like a strange partnership drag nuns joining forces with the American Legion, the country's largest veterans' organization with 14,000 posts worldwide. The goals of the Legion are traditionally conservative: uphold the constitution, make national security the top priority, demand loyalty to the union, and "foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism," according to its preamble. It even maintains a pseudo-military rank structure among its members.
But the partnership isn't so strange. The 448 is the only Legion post in the nation for gays and lesbians who once served in the military. Its relationship with the Sisters is a "good partnership," as Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms Morningstar Vancil puts it, and a "win-win situation." The post runs the outside bar since city bingo rules don't allow liquor during the game and the Sisters get the room at the vets' reduced rental rate.
The bingo proceeds go to the Sisters' charities while the proceeds from the bar go to Post's causes, particularly its ongoing push to repeal the military's long-standing ban preventing homosexuals from serving openly. Today, that cause seems more hopeful than ever considering that the current presidential administration has promised to bring the ban to an end.
"We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we're fighting two wars," President Barack Obama said in his speech to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission on Oct. 10.
However, some of the post members are only cautiously optimistic about Obama's promise after the long, tough climb just to establish a gay post in San Francisco.
Noted gay rights activist and veteran Dr. Paul D. Hardman formed the post in 1984, naming it after Alexander Hamilton, who wrote affectionate letters to Continental Army Capt. John Laurens. A quote from one letter appears on the post's Web site: "I wish, my dear Laurens, that it might be in my power, by action, rather than words, to convince you that I love you." Hardman and some historians have speculated on a homosexual relationship between the two.
Hardman needed at least 15 gay veterans to form the post and he got 18, including the late Marcus Hernandez, former leather columnist for the LGBT newspaper Bay Area Reporter. But acceptance was hard to get in the early days.
According to Arch Wilson, World War II vet and the oldest living founding member at 85, the post had a difficult time getting approved. During the approval process, the Legion stalled, losing applications and paperwork, which Wilson attributes to old-guard homophobia.
"They absolutely had no tolerance for homosexuals in their midst," Wilson said
At first, the 448 wasn't even allowed in the Veterans Building. But they had a powerful weapon: the city's nondiscrimination ordinances. Since the building was city property, the American Legion had to abide by the ordinances. The threat of a lawsuit was leverage enough to allow the Alexander Hamilton Post an office and its charter, but not a seat on the War Memorial Commission that ran the building. The 448 got a seat on the commission after taking the Legion to court in 1987.
According to Commander John Forrett, one of his predecessors had once been asked at a national Legion convention, "Oh, you're from San Francisco. You've got that queer post, don't cha?" And when a gay slur was uttered at a delegate meeting, the post again took the Legion to court. "Following that they haven't dared mouth off any kind of venom about queers," Wilson said.
And while acceptance is more readily found today, there is still some resentment. "It shows through sometimes," Wilson said. "If you were a black man, you'd know when you were getting a subtle brush-off by a white who didn't like you and wouldn't dare say so."
Forrett agrees. "The clash still exists but it's the old guard the older veterans as well as older active duty members."
When called for comment, the national American Legion office said it didn't even know a gay post existed. However, the American Legion's Department of California the state headquarters, which is located in San Francisco told us that the 448's sexual orientation just isn't even an issue nowadays.
When Congress approved 10 United States Code, Section 654, commonly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) the Alexander Hamilton Post had a new fight. Signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, DADT is the policy that allows homosexuals to serve as long as they stay in the closet. Since its inception, the 448 has fought aggressively to get it overturned.
The history of DADT is "kind of the history of the post," according to Forrett, who was a reserve Army officer living in the closet during the first Gulf War. Fortunately, his sexuality never came into question, but he eventually resigned his commission because of the unfortunate changes he saw in the military as a result of DADT.
"DADT, with the best of intentions, didn't go far enough to protect and left a huge window of opportunity for predators and harassers," Forrett said.
Forrett has met two of the most prominent casualties of DADT: Lt. Dan Choi, who has since become a post member, and former sailor Joseph Rocha, who wrote an Oct. 11 Washington Post op-ed piece outlining the brutal harassment he received because of his sexuality. He wrote that his chief forced him to simulate oral sex with another sailor, and was once tied up in a dog kennel.
Since the mid-1990s, the 448 has sought to build support for repealing DADT. Hardman and others testified in Congress in 1996 on the damaging impact of the policy. He also pushed for the belated release of what he called the "long-suppressed" 1993 Rand Corporation study on gays in the military. The study's conclusion was that sexual orientation wasn't germane when deciding who can and cannot effectively serve in the military
The report spearheaded the post's partnership with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a nonprofit organization helping those harassed under DADT. "The Alexander Hamilton Legion has been a longtime committed partner," Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN Executive Director wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian.
Post members attend SLDN's Lobby Day, where supporters gather on Capitol Hill asking politicians to take action. And they continue to work with SLDN on getting the Military Readiness Enhancement Act a bill that would repeal DADT pushed through Congress.
But other post members are getting impatient. "Get on with it," Service Officer Robert C. Potter told us. "As my mother would say, 'Either shit or get off the pot.'"
"Before Obama gets out of office, I want this changed," Sergeant-at-Arms Jimmy McConnell said. "And it's not just for me. I want it for every person who feels that they are gay, bi, transgender, whatever."
However, Forrett is confident the president will make good on his promise. He feels that the president is going about it the right way by waiting for the next Congress. "Come on, man, 2010 isn't that far," he said. "We've been suffering this long."
When DADT is repealed, the post will work toward building a LGBT veterans' memorial honoring those brave gay soldiers who gave their lives protecting their country. "For those who were before us, for those who are with us, and those who will come," Forrett said. "That's kind of the concept. We want it to be an ongoing tribute."
In the meantime, the post continues to fight for veterans' rights as well as LGBT rights, even bringing care packages to the wounded soldiers at the Fort Miley V.A. Hospital. "When we go to the V.A. hospital we don't focus on LGBT, we focus on veterans," Forrett said.
And they'll continue working with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and marching in the Pride Parade because Forrett believes that everything the post does comes back to DADT. "It keeps us out in front of everybody and that's what's important."