A new kind of fight Gay Marine who lost leg in Iraq joins effort to repeal `Don t Ask, Don t Tell By JOSHUA LYNSEN | Feb 28, 11:46 AM It was a late autumnMessage 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 2007View Source
A new kind of fight
Gay Marine who lost leg in Iraq joins effort to repeal `Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
By JOSHUA LYNSEN | Feb 28, 11:46 AM
It was a late autumn evening when Eric Alva, now a retired Marine staff sergeant and the first U.S. service member injured in the Iraq war, decided to come out as gay.
The decision, Alva said, came after his partner noted Alva lost his right leg while defending freedoms neither man could fully enjoy.
Alva said the words his partner spoke then in their San Antonio, Texas, home have stayed with him.
"Look at the rights that people are being denied," Alva recalled his partner saying. "And look at the rights that you are fighting for. Look at the rights that you put your life on the line for, for this country. And yet you don't get any of them.
"He made me raise my eyebrows. Like, `Oh my God, you're right.' I'm just a second-class citizen who isn't going to get anything unless I say something. And I'm in a position to do something."
That's why Alva who was christened the war's first hero and met President Bush after he was injured by a land mine in March 2003 came out as gay publicly on Wednesday.
"There are certain things you do in life at a certain time and a certain place," he told the Blade. "In my heart, I know this is the right time."
Alva now plans to work with Human Rights Campaign as part of the organization's renewed effort to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bars gays from serving openly in the armed forces.
Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) introduced a bill Wednesday backed by more than 100 other House members to repeal the 13-year-old policy. A companion Senate bill is expected later this year.
"We know that there's no place in this country for discrimination, whether it's based on race, creed or sexual orientation," he said. "And there's no place for institutional discrimination codified in the federal statutes."
`Country has changed'
Gay activists consider Meehan's bill, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a key priority for the 110th Congress.
C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that backs Meehan's bill, said public opinion favors ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
A poll last year by the Pew Research Center found 60 percent of Americans think gays should be allowed to serve openly. In a separate poll last year of 545 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 73 percent of troops said they were comfortable interacting with gay service members.
"The country has changed, the military has changed," Osburn said, "and now it's time for Congress to change."
But it's unclear how Congress will react. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has indicated she supports the repeal, but a spokesperson for Pelosi said, "It's hard to say where things are going."
And efforts to repeal the policy could meet fierce conservative resistance.
Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, said Meehan's bill could "activate the grassroots conservative movement."
"It's the gay side that has been working so hard to change hearts and minds, whereas the conservative side has not been that engaged," he said. "But I think that will quickly change."
Nonetheless, Meehan, who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee and aims for a hearing on his bill by May, said momentum to repeal the policy "is clearly on our side."
"I don't have any doubt that it's just a matter of time," he said, "and the people who are on the other side are simply on the wrong side of history."
`He's still Eric'
As activists work to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Alva said Americans should support domestically the same ideals the nation is touting in Iraq.
"It's an opportunity to really test the guidelines of what everybody always talks about in this country," he said. "Everybody always preaches that everybody's equal in this country everybody's treated the same. We're really not. I mean, we're not. This would be a test. If you feel that we're the same, then repeal the policy. Let people serve openly in the military."
Alva, who joined the Marines in 1990 at age 19, said being closeted had an adverse affect on him.
"On a professional level, no, because I knew I had a job to do," he said. "On a personal level, in some ways, yes, because it was hard for me to live sometimes knowing that I was alone or that I couldn't be open about who I wanted to date."
Although he became accustomed to concealing his identity, Alva said he came out to several Marines during his 13 years in the armed forces. He was never questioned, though, or reprimanded for lying about his sexual orientation on his military application.
But he said there was one particularly awkward instance during which Alva and another Marine were having drinks at a sports bar in Burbank, Calif.
After the Marine commented on several women in the bar, he noticed Alva's dispassionate demeanor.
"He's like, `Dude, what's the matter? Are you gay or something?'" Alva said. "And just out of response because I already had two margaritas in me, I was buzzed I just turned to him and said, `As a matter of fact,' ... `I am. So what do you have to say about that, jerk off?' He just looked at me and he goes, `Are you serious?' And I said, `I am.'"
Alva said although the man pledged to keep the secret, it was soon leaked. But the gossiping didn't cause any harm.
"It was amazing, because people respected me and liked me more than they did him," he said. "When he would tell people, everybody was like, `What's your point? He's still Eric.'"
But now the man who fought for fairness in Iraq will seek the same on Capitol Hill.
HRC President Joe Solmonese said Alva will serve as the organization's national spokesperson on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" issues. Plans include public appearances, a media campaign and meetings with key members of Congress.
"When Eric Alva lost his leg in Iraq, it didn't matter whether he was gay or straight, only that he was a courageous American serving his country," he said. "The courage and sacrifice of gay and lesbian service members, like Eric Alva, should be heralded, not silenced."
Alva, while relishing the opportunity, said he's still becoming accustomed to his new role.
"Thinking that I'm going to be some poster boy, or given that title all over again a hero I mean, to me, I'm just wanting to be your regular, average American citizen who has a voice, who has a point to make and wants to empower other people about the rights and equality of what people really deserve in this country."