Discharged in 2002 from the US Army under the provisions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Alexander Nicholson was shocked to learn there was no group advocating DADT’s repeal that was reaching out to active military or veterans organizations. Nicholson believed the repeal effort needed spokespersons who understood military culture, who could talk about DADT’s impact on those who serve to those who serve and served. Someone like him.
From this idea Servicemembers United, the largest organization for gay and lesbian servicemembers, was born. Nicholson and several others who had been discharged under DADT toured the United States, where they spoke at American Legion posts, on radio talk shows, and at press conferences across the South and on both coasts. Surprised at the mostly positive reception that the tour provoked, Nicholson and Servicemembers United were propelled to the forefront of the DADT repeal fight.
In time Nicholson became the only named plaintiff in the successful lawsuit that ordered the policy overturned, forcing the US Congress to act. Fighting to Serve gives a no-holds-barred account of the backstage strategies and negotiations, revealing how various LGBT organizations, the Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House often worked at cross purposes. But in the end, it was the pressure brought by active veterans, a court ruling out of California, and a few courageous senators, representatives, and military leaders that brought the destructive policy to an end.
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Fighting to Serve
Behind the Scenes in the War to Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
By Alexander Nicholson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 Alexander Nicholson
All rights reserved.
"I AM NOT AN ACTIVIST"
"This is done." With those three simple words, the president of the United States signed into law the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Act of 2010 on the morning of December 22, 2010. As I sat in the front row of the packed room, directly in front of the desk at which President Barack Obama signed our hard-won repeal bill into law and spoke those memorable words, I did not feel the sense of elation or fruition I thought I would feel after all those years of work. Perhaps it was because, as the five hundred politicians and progressive advocates seated behind me cheered, deep down I knew that the work was far from done. It would be up to us to continue the exhausting and draining fight to actually finish the job that had already bruised and bloodied us enough over the preceding years.
Instead of experiencing one "on top of the world" moment as hundreds did that morning, I had the privilege of being able to experience firsthand the dozens of small triumphs along the path leading up to that day. As the founder and executive director of Service members United (SU), the nation's largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans during the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) repeal fight, and as the sole named veteran plaintiff on the only contemporary lawsuit to successfully challenge the constitutionality of the DADT law, I have the unique distinction of being the only person in the country to have been at the fore of each and every front in the war against DADT — the grassroots, the media, Congress, the administration, the Pentagon, and the courts. Several others were substantively involved in several of those fronts, but no one else helped lead the charge in all of those categories except for me, a distinction of which I am quite proud.
It is that body of experience that allowed me to recognize and truly live the small victories along the way, primarily because I was involved in or witnessed most of them personally. But all those experiences diminished the cumulative moment for me on that chilly December morning in 2010. I had not only seen firsthand the sausage making that was the DADT repeal fight; I had actively participated in the grinding. I'd helped change the course of the fight, but the course of the fight had also significantly changed me.
I used to tell myself that if I ever wrote a book, it would be called I Am Not an Activist: One Activist's Journey. That's because when I first started doing DADT repeal advocacy work, I would always say to reporters and others who tried to label us veterans with that "a" word: "We're not activists. We're not professionals. We're just ordinary people who are leaving our lives behind for a little while to do our part." But within six months, I had stopped saying that.
In the spring of 2006 a documentary filmmaker named Johnny Symons, who had been chronicling the DADT repeal movement for PBS, reminded me of how I used to say "I am not an activist" all the time when he first met me. He then asked me on camera if I still thought of myself as a nonactivist. I wish I could see the look I must have had on my face when I first realized that maybe this new lifestyle of politics and advocacy wasn't just temporary. Although that scene didn't make it into the groundbreaking documentary, a film aptly named Ask Not, PBS managed to capture the moment when I truly felt like I had become the unlikely activist.
* * *
I always found it funny when people would tell me that they came from a small town too, and that their small town had only about forty or fifty thousand people in it. To me growing up, a town of forty or fifty thousand was the "big city." I would almost always win that "Whose small town is smaller?" contest, because as I always used to say at speaking events to give me some "down home" creds, I grew up in a small town in rural South Carolina with two thousand people and two stoplights. We had to drive an hour to get to the nearest mall or airport, we had no Walmart or real grocery store — we had to drive over to North Carolina for those — and we had one high school for the whole county, because even the county only had about twenty-seven thousand people in it.
I consider myself to have grown up in a military family, although we weren't really a traditional military family. We never lived on post and we didn't have to move around a lot, but my father spent a career in the US Army, which carried over into the first decade of my life. But by the time I was born, his military time was spent primarily in the Army Reserves, although I certainly remember the frequent drills and tours of duty that would send him away — for far too long, as far as I was concerned. I remember holding onto his leg as he tried to leave for one reserve tour and not letting go until my mother repeatedly reassured me that she would make a special trip up to Virginia with me so that I could go visit him this time around.
Then in 1992, my father deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. I was one of only two kids in my school with a parent deployed for the Gulf War, but our little elementary school rallied around us like the whole school had been deployed. They held marches and tied yellow ribbons, and my whole fourth-grade class wrote frequently to my dad. Somehow he found the time in Saudi Arabia to write back to everyone, in between dodging Saddam's Scuds and running supply convoys up to the front lines in Kuwait. He kept all of those letters from my classmates too, and I read some of them after he got back. I remember being shocked and appalled that some of the other kids in my class had asked him to send them some of the delicious chocolate "Desert Bars" that he had sent me and that I had taken to school to show off. Didn't they know that all candy procurements he could make were to go directly to me?
My father was a strict disciplinarian while I was growing up; my mother was the sensitive and compassionate parent, as mothers usually are. My dad's drill sergeant ways finally made perfect sense after I joined the army at age nineteen and got randomly assigned to do boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia — the only all-male boot camp left in the army and the one at which the infantry is trained. For the first time ever, my dad revealed to me that early in his army career he had been a drill sergeant at Fort Benning. I distinctly remember him remarking on my assignment, "Benning's the toughest one, but you'll be better off for having gone there."
Those who knew me before I joined the army probably never thought I'd actually go and do something like that. (Of course, there are plenty of others I've thought that about myself who are doing quite well on active duty.) I was always a nice little geeky kid who preferred the almanac, encyclopedias, and National Geographic to video games and recess. I was quite entrepreneurial too, coming up with a new business idea every other day. My first childhood foray into business was a small table I set up in my front yard out by the road to sell the only thing I could find to sell: sticks. And I actually made money. My aunt said she would give me a dollar if I would stop selling sticks and get away from the road. I took the dollar, closed up shop, and declared my first endeavor a success.
On another occasion I painted a variety of world flags on some rocks from my driveway, saving the largest one for the American flag. I then set up shop with my cousin in her front yard and actually sold two of my flag rocks to two different neighborhood kids. In the end, though, I only netted one sale, because one of my customers came back and said he had to return his previous purchase. He assured me that he liked my wares, but his mom had yelled at him for buying a rock and told him to go get his money back.
Thus was my childhood growing up in Small Town, USA. With a rather isolated existence and a conservative Southern Baptist upbringing, I never really even knew about the concept of homosexuality until my sexual orientation began naturally manifesting itself in my psyche during my early teens. The same characteristics of that small rural town that had given me such a wholesome and happy childhood began to bring torment to my life during adolescence as I began to realize that I was different from the other guys I had grown up with. As we grew older, they were more and more interested in girls, yet I remained solely interested in burying myself in my own private world of travel, languages, history, and anything else that helped me mentally escape. As a result, I know the capital of virtually every country in the world and I'm still the person you want on your team for trivia night. But being isolated in a small town while trying to come to terms with my sexual orientation nearly killed me, as the weekly fire and brimstone condemnation of this evil "lifestyle" from the pulpit and the rising social pressures to be "normal" had me, like many others before and after, well on the way to becoming another gay teen suicide statistic. Luckily, I got out of that small town at just the right time.
My family moved around a little, and I ended up finishing high school in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is where I also went to my freshman year of college. After that one expensive but enlightening year of university, the money ran out and I was feeling quite restless. So in the summer of 2000 I decided to move to Miami (I ended up in suburban Kendall) and get a job without ever having even visited there before. By that time I spoke Spanish fluently, and I thought the hub of Latin life in the United States would provide a good adventure during my hiatus from college — and that it did.
Soon, suburban life in Kendall gave way to the more glamorous life of South Beach. You can get away with just about anything when you're young and attractive in South Beach, and I was fortunate enough that few knew that I was only nineteen at the time. The food, the shopping, the beaches, the people, the clubs — it was an amazing experience that I am also fortunate to have survived, probably because I never touched drugs, then or ever. Nevertheless, I burned out of that lifestyle after one year and longed for some familiar structure, stability, and purpose, and the pendulum swung all the way back to the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia.
I enlisted in the army on June 20, 2001, and quietly celebrated my twentieth birthday five days later in the 30th AG Reception Battalion at Fort Benning. I certainly knew I was gay before I went into the army and was comfortable with myself and open to at least my friends. I vaguely recall knowing that one had to hide being gay in the military, but I didn't think it would be a problem at all. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" seemed so simple, reasonable, and manageable at the time. No one would ask me about my sexual orientation, and as long as I kept my private life private, everything would be OK. But I would soon find out that the misleading sound bite of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was more like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Happen to Get Found Out, Any Time, Any Place, in Any Way." But of course that more accurate title was too much for the headlines.
Boot camp at Fort Benning was a challenge, but I don't think that my training experience was significantly different from that of anyone else who went through Benning. Just as it should, Basic Combat Training made me a better person, and I was still young enough to get the full transformation experience that the training regimen is intended to facilitate. I think there was at least one other gay guy in my platoon at Benning, but I had no interest whatsoever in finding out. Much later on, I always found it rather hilarious when DADT repeal opponents would talk about those allegedly intimate scenarios, like boot camp, in which known gay people would surely cause all sorts of problems with their pernicious gay ways. It was always people who had never actually been in one of those scenarios, or who hadn't been there for many decades, who made that argument. Anyone with a fresh memory of boot camp would know how utterly impossible normal social dynamics of any kind are during Basic Combat Training. It's just too busy, too stressful, and too focused a time for any of their crazy predictions to happen, even if the premises were true.
In fact, we were so busy at Basic Combat Training at Benning that I actually became Mormon for a few weeks just to get a reprieve. Well, sort of. The only break we got each week from that boot camp atmosphere was for Sunday religious services. If you went to the "regular" services, you got an hour-long break. However, if you went to the Mormon or Muslim services, you got a three-hour break. Needless to say, many of us learned about either Mormonism or Islam for no other reason than to get two extra hours of reprieve from the drill sergeants. After the first four Mormon "discussions," however, I decided I needed something a bit more animated, even if I had to endure two more hours of hell, so I opted for the mainline Protestant service for the remaining five weeks.
I finished up at Benning on Friday, September 7, 2001. My parents could not have been prouder, but I couldn't have been more relieved. I absolutely loved the army, but I was ready to get on with training as a human intelligence collector, better known as an interrogator. That same afternoon, I flew out to a little intelligence base in southern Arizona called Fort Huachuca to begin the next phase of my army career and the next chapter of my life.
Many people hate Fort Huachuca because it's isolated and desolate and because there isn't much to do in the tiny adjoining town of Sierra Vista. The nearest city is an hour away, and even that city, Tucson, is relatively sleepy. I, however, instantly fell in love with Huachuca. The beautiful, serene southern Arizona landscapes made me feel instantly at ease, and the mile-high elevation made for a much cooler late summer than the intense heat of southern Georgia. Little did I know how this tiny piece of desert paradise would change my life.
Upon arriving at my new unit late on a Friday afternoon, the first thing that took me by surprise was the presence of females. Benning was all male, and after my first two and a half months there I had just grown accustomed to not having women around — and not even noticing it. So it was quite strange for me and my fellow newbies to walk up to the end-of-week company formation to see not only the much more relaxed environment of the intelligence training brigade at Huachuca but also the very different social dynamic with females in the mix. As the formation concluded, the first sergeant sounded off with his characteristic reminder, "No glove, no love," deepening my amusement. And on top of that, that afternoon marked the beginning of the weekend, meaning that I suddenly had two free days to relax and enjoy my new home. This was just all so strange and surreal to me at the time, but it only made me love the army, and Fort Huachuca, even more.
After that much-needed weekend break, and a day of in-processing into the new unit on Monday, came my first morning of duty at Fort Huachuca: the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The day began with a dawn formation followed by a brisk and rejuvenating morning run during which I struggled to catch my breath at a much higher elevation than I was used to, but it was nevertheless refreshing. Afterward, we all returned to the barracks area for another formation before showers and breakfast, and yet another morning formation to kick off the day. As most of the company milled about outside, one of the platoon sergeants yelled out across the staging area and asked if anyone was from New York. A few soldiers raised their hands or shouted in the affirmative, and we all then got our first jolt of the day: "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan. You all go call home and make sure your loved ones are OK."
Like many across America that day, we all naturally just assumed that the first crash was a tragic accident. After everyone else was dismissed, many of us filtered into the various barracks common rooms to watch news footage of the first tower burning and to tune in to the evolving analysis of what was going on. Then, right in front of our eyes on live television, the second plane hit. Gasps and expletives filled the room as some of us tried to work out whether this could still be an accident. Was New York's air traffic control system going haywire and sending planes way off course? Was the weather there bad or something? None of the explanations made any sense, but neither did two planes flying into the World Trade Center. Within minutes, reality set in, and everyone standing there knew that none of our lives would ever be the same again. Indeed, some of the friends standing there that morning would later lose their lives as a result of the ensuing conflicts.
I thoroughly enjoyed interrogation school, and I actually learned a lot of useful and fundamental information there that I still use to this day. The major problem with the army's interrogation and human intelligence collection training at the time, however, was that it was all geared toward Cold War-era threats and conflicts. Even after 9/11, the training regimen continued in Cold War style, which would surely handicap military intelligence collection efforts in at least the first few years of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Excerpted from Fighting to Serve by Alexander Nicholson. Copyright © 2012 Alexander Nicholson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 "I Am Not an Activist" 1
2 Revival 15
3 A Call to Duty 21
4 New Partnerships 43
5 Hearings and Elections 57
6 "Servicemembers' Milestone" 69
7 Executive Options 77
8 A New Quarterback on the Field 89
9 State of the Union and Secret Meetings 103
10 Bombshell Hearings 119
11 Celebrities on the Stage and Soldiers at the Gate 137
12 Old Partnerships 151
13 The Amendment and Not-So-Secret Meetings 165
14 Victory and Defeat 177
15 Winning the Lottery 197
16 Lame Ducks 211
17 The Report, More Hearings, and Final Victory 227
18 Certification and the Countdown to Repeal 249
19 Beyond Repeal 269
What People are Saying About This
"[Nicholson] stood on the frontline of this battle and his dedicated and unflinching service to our nation was the very sort that our military needs most. He is living proof that a soldier needs no rank or uniform to fully serve his country with utmost integrity. In war, any leader needs an accurate depiction of the ground level situation. [Nicholson] reports a valuable perspective in the battle against Don't Ask Don't Tell, translating the details into priceless lessons for our civil rights movement. He was trained to translate, and this book is an example of the very best translation a leader could want." —Lt. Dan Choi
"[Nicholson] provides a rarely seen look at how activist organizations tirelessly work to build delicate alliances in Washington. . . An intriguing look at gay activism inside the Beltway." —Kirkus
"Nicholson opens a window on the world of issue advocacy politics, providing keen insight into a realm of political operations that generally occurs out of the public view while offering a working model of a successful movement." —Publishers Weekly
"Former Servicemembers United founder Alexander Nicholson gives an insider's look at the multi-year effort, all in a surprisingly approachable manner. His own military story would have been reason enough for a book, but thankfully we now have a fascinating—and important—look at history, too." — Instinct Magazine
"Don't read this if you don't want to see how the sausage is made." — Outsmart
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Outstanding behind the scenes look into the DADT repeal fight! This was a real eye-opener that I couldn't put down!
An exceptional telling of the struggle and eventual victorious repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. Mr Nicholson tells an honest (and at times humorous) firsthand account of the repeal of DADT. This book is a great read for anyone looking for a historical account, or simply a great book that will have you laughing, crying, and eventually celebrating one of the greatest moments in 2011. I can only hope that Mr Nicholson will be available to write the story of the repeal of DOMA as well.
They say don't judge a book by its cover, but in this case the self serving cover photo matches the grandious ego the author puts on full display in the contents of this literary dud. I've already returned this item back to the store.