Alibi V.23 No.22 • May 29-June 4, 2014 

Feature

Silent No More

A new monument honors LGBT veterans

The Inclusive Memorial honors all who “served in silence.”
The Inclusive Memorial honors all who “served in silence.”
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
On February 23, 1777, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben reported for duty under General George Washington at the Valley Forge military camp. Von Steuben, a boisterous Prussian nobleman who brought his Italian greyhound with him everywhere he went, was tasked with whipping Washington’s ragtag army into a proper fighting force. Within a few months, he had done just that, establishing training regimens and standards of discipline that the US Armed Forces would rely on for nearly a century and a half. Von Steuben served in George Washington’s quarters for the remainder of the war, and after the Americans secured their independence, he was proclaimed a Revolutionary hero who is still celebrated and honored to this day.

One fact about von Steuben that is often left out of the history books, however, is his sexual orientation. Von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero who is sometimes referred to as the “father of America’s Army,” was gay. In fact, he first came to the Colonies in order to escape persecution for his homosexuality. Before the United States even existed, a gay man gave his service to champion its ideals of freedom. And from that day to this, thousands (at least) of LGBT soldiers have served in the United States Armed Forces, doing their part to fight for the country they love. But for over 200 years, they were forced to do so in silence and in fear that because of who they were, they would face dishonorable discharge, violence and even death.

With the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the official acceptance of soldiers of all sexual orientations, gay and bisexual men and women can serve openly. And now, a monument at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial park (1100 Louisiana SE) will openly honor all those who gave their service, and sometimes their lives, in forced silence.

Now, a monument at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial park will openly honor all those who gave their service, and sometimes their lives, in forced silence.

Veteran Lieutenant Colonel Steve Loomis speaks at the monument’s dedication.
Veteran Lieutenant Colonel Steve Loomis speaks at the monument’s dedication.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Lt. Col. Steve Loomis, national president of American Veterans for Equal Rights (the organization that arranged for the memorial), knows firsthand what serving in silence meant. “I was 30 years in the Army, then discharged in 1995 because I was gay.” The federal government tried to withhold his pension, but Loomis fought them in court and won it back. To him, this monument is a vindication.

The monument itself is simple and unobtrusive. A rose marble stone—“The closest we could get to pink,” says Loomis, laughing—that bears the inscription “In honor of all who proudly served and now serve our country, together in harms way, regardless of their race, gender, nationality, faith, gender identity or sexual orientation. Serving in silence, fighting for freedom, since Valley Forge.”

“It was important for us to make it inclusive. And positive. We figured we would meet less resistance that way,” says Loomis, and indeed AVER found that the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Board was supportive of their design. “Even five years ago, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham called for transgender rights in the US Armed Forces.
Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham called for transgender rights in the US Armed Forces.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
On Monday, May 26, Memorial Day, a crowd of veterans, politicians, well-wishers and families gathered to officially dedicate the monument. A few audience members arrived in full drag regalia, but dress military uniforms were far more common. There was an opening prayer followed by the National Anthem, and then Lt. Col. Steve Loomis spoke of Donnell Stevens, a Korean War veteran who served aboard the USS Bennington.

“He was always proud to be a sailor ... and proud of the men and women he served with. Sometime later, he was discovered to be gay and summarily discharged as so many others were at that time. For many years he hid this fact from his friends, his family and his co-workers. When he retired, he came to Albuquerque ... and for the first time openly took up the causes of our [LGBT] community ... During Pride Week of 2011, he died in his home. That man was our friend Donnell ‘Don’ Stevens, whose important estate gift made this monument possible. He was just one example of many who with patriotism served their country while silently serving in harms way through World Wars, Korean Wars, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm and most recently Afghanistan and Iraq. This memorial will now stand in recognition of their service and will include those they proudly served with over two centuries since the Revolutionary war.”

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Loomis was followed by US Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, who spoke succinctly in full support of the LGBT veterans community. “This memorial is long overdue,” she said. “It reminds me of another story. Of a veteran named Leonard Matlovich, who was a Vietnam hero and was discharged because of who he was. The inscription on his gravestone reads as follows ‘I was given a medal for killing two men and discharged for loving another.’ Those days have to be gone.

“The transgender community was left out of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, and it’s yet another thing that congress must address or again we are continuing to allow our men and women to serve in silence. “

In front of the monument, some two dozen bricks bear the names of veterans who served in a military that would not accept them for who they were. Steve Loomis’ name is there, as are fellow Bataan AVER members Stephani Patten and Penn Baker, as well as more well-known figures like Harvey Milk, a veteran of the Korean War who was assassinated in San Francisco. And, in the upper left-hand corner, Friedrich von Steuben himself.

All around them are bricks awaiting the names of others who have served, are serving and will serve their country proudly. And at last, they can be honored for who they were, and are.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com