Memorial 15 years in the making with many more to go


HONORING THOSE WHO SERVED | A rendering of the proposed National LGBT Vets’ Memorial in Historical Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: National LGBT Veterans Memorial)


JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

Supporters of a plan to build a LGBT veterans’ memorial unveiled their design last month in the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Now they just need to raise the funds to build it.

The proposal is the latest milestone for the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Veterans Memorial.

Board chair and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Russell of San Antonio is spearheading the effort with a volunteer board of veterans spread across the country. One of the board’s first priorities after gaining non-profit status was getting a design.

The group put out a call for proposals, but the six it received fell short of their standards. None of them “inspired, much less gave the dignity and solemnity necessary for a memorial,” she said. “We wanted something that would make us proud.”

Fellow board member and Marine veteran Marty Gunter submitted a design and won the board’s approval.

Three black granite pillars standing 11 feet high marked with the emblems of the six military divisions will tower above niches holding the ashes of veterans and their partners. Surrounding it will be plots for those wishing to be interred there.

While there are two national memorials already honoring LGBT veterans, one in Phoenix and the other in Cathedral City, Calif., having one in the nation’s capital would make statement, she said.

As subtle as the memorial may be, Russell said the project makes a political statement. “It’s a historical act, recognizing a period of history where servicemen served but could not be out.”

With the design available, they can now focus on awareness of and fundraising for the memorial. Russell estimates initial costs at $300,000.

It’s been 15 years in the making.

The group did not formally incorporate until September 2011, shortly after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the law that barred gay, lesbian and bisexual service members from being out while on active duty. Even then, being a veteran was a risk, further hindering the group’s ability to formally raise money and function as a not-for-profit entity. Timing was everything.

The idea for a memorial had long been on her mind, but the public support for the LGBT community just wasn’t there. It was the 1990s, an uneasy time for the LGBT community, and even she had just become an activist. Russell was a founding board member of the pro-LGBT group American Veterans for Equal Rights and testified against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell before the House Armed Services Committee. She worked with multiple national Democratic groups as well.

Despite the national profile though, Russell still fought some of the demons that came with being in the closet.

The military is your life, Russell said. “After I retired, I introduced myself at one point as a recovering Army officer,” she said. “It was hard to be fully integrated [into the military] when you have to hide part of yourself. I was used to denying this part of myself.”

That national profile, however, gave her a wide range of contacts. One of those was Congressional Cemetery board member Patrick Crowley, who approached Russell in 1999 about possibly using the cemetery as the site for LGBT veterans’ memorial. At that point, the cemetery was run by an all-volunteer group and couldn’t get the resources together.

But the idea was still on Russell’s mind.

The historic Congressional Cemetery, despite the name, is not owned or even operated by the federal government. The de facto cemetery, according to its website, is owned by Christ Church and managed by The Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery. But since its founding in 1807, it’s been the burial grounds for congressmen, senators, celebrities and veterans.

The cemetery already has a 9/11 memorial maintained by a local group in a deal identical to the NLGBTVM.

Paul Williams, the openly gay president of the association, said there are many out veterans and public servants buried there. “We have a ‘gay section’ actually,” he said laughing, making it a perfect location for the LGBT veterans memorial. Its affiliation with the church allows it to “carry on the Christian tradition of being kind to one’s neighbors,” he said.

Among those in the gay section are prominent LGBT veterans, including Leonard Matlovich, an air force pilot and Purple Heart recipient. After he came out in an issue of Time magazine in 1975 he was dishonorably discharged. He chose Congressional over Arlington Memorial Cemetery in part because of his choice words on his tombstone: “They gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Another prominent official in the gay section, Williams added, was the allegedly closeted former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

Change comes with time. Eventually there will be gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans who never knew DADT. But that shouldn’t diminish the memorial’s importance, said Rob Smith, a young gay activist, journalist and Iraq War veteran who served under the DADT policy.

“Whether or not DADT is over, history will forget you. The contributions of LGBT people, African-Americans and others wouldn’t be recognized” were it not for the efforts of activists, he said

“I’m not going to be the last gay black soldier,” he said, just as Russell will not be the last out lesbian soldier.

He also stressed the memorial will raise awareness about the diversity within the LGBT community. “It shows that there are LGBT people outside of the entertainment business.”

Russell said she’s not worried. “I had one younger man, an active duty member in Iraq, asking to be involved,” she said.

Russell and Smith acknowledged that transgender service members are still unable to serve openly. She said she’s reached out to transgender community, but recognizes many activists already have their plates full. She wonders though if the stigma of being trans in the military has pushed potential board members away.

She’s still trying, she said.

Barriers clearly haven’t stopped her.

“We are now integrated into society but that doesn’t we shouldn’t forget our history,” she said.

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 15, 2014.