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I don’t know how many other former monks will be asking people to sign petitions to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but there was one at Pridefest in Denver this year.
I have never served in the military; however, I have always had immense respect for my brothers and sisters who do so. I vividly remember reading Randy Shilts’ “Conduct Unbecoming” and being moved by the stories of men and women who were discharged from the Armed Forces simply because of how they love. It seemed so unbelievable to me that in our “enlightened” times discrimination is still very real for people who want to serve openly.
Ironically, I came to live in a somewhat “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” environment. As a monk of St. Benedict's Abbey in Atchison, KS, I had every intention of dedicating my life to service, the same as my military brothers and sisters. I did not hide who I was as a gay man, but I never thought my orientation would be an issue. What matters is service, dedication, passion. However, when I wrote my Master’s thesis, a “how I went from 80s party boy to monk” memoir, my abbot informed me that I could not publish it. Why? Because I was honest about being gay. The fact that I “told” was viewed as a “scandal.” I was not asked to leave the monastery: I chose to part ways with the cloister. I could not imagine living a life of secrecy. Dishonesty is foreign to service.
So it was with great hope that I arrived at the SLDN booth early on Sunday morning’s Pride celebration. I was greeted by Geoff, who had served in the Army and been discharged under DADT. Our backgrounds differed: He was forced out of an institution and I chose to leave one, yet I felt a connection to him. We both knew what it was like to experience repercussions for being honest about who we are.
We placed rubber ducks in military uniforms on the table. Sandwiched between a Petlane booth and one selling jewelry, Geoff stood in front of the table with the clipboard and his booming voice to invite people to sign the petition to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I sat behind the table, scrambling to gather filled-in sheets and pass out more. In fact, there were many times when we had people waiting to sign: There was no room at the table, no free clipboards. But wait they did.
It was so energizing to find so many people eager and passionate, about ending DADT. Often when I'd ask, “Would you like to sign our petition to end DADT?” I was met with enthusiastic resolve: “Yes! By all means!”
What moved me the most, however, was to learn that behind each signature there was a story. Each scrawl, each address, represented a story. I met countless men and women who had served (both gay and straight). They recounted difficulties. And joys. I met a man who was to leave for Iraq the next day. Several people asked if they could just sign without including their addresses: They still serve and were fearful of repercussions. Many were somber. Many laughed as they told stories. All of them recognized the gravity of the injustice of DADT. The dance music pounded and hands clutched cups of beer and the young sashayed and straight people bounced with glee and children reached for the duckies and couples embraced and veterans paused to say, “Thank you. Thank you.” Each signature was a story. Is a story. A story that needs to be told.
My experience humbled me. I was honored to be in the presence of brothers and sisters committed to service and honesty. To celebrating freedom. And love.