Veterans say ending ban on gays is civil rights issue


February 03, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- They trudged from office to office, marching up and down the bleak institutional corridors of the buildings that house the U.S. Senate.

They had come to lobby the senators, but no senator would see them. They did not represent any giant oil companies or insurance firms. They were young and old, white and black, straight and gay. They had all served their country in uniform. And now they were here because they believe that ending the ban on gays in the military is a simple matter of civil rights.

Major Gen. Vance Coleman, U.S. Army-Retired, is an African-American who began his military career in 1948, the year Harry Truman desegregated the military in one bold, swift stroke.

Military leaders were opposed. Blacks and whites cannot share barracks or showers or latrines, they said. Whites will not take orders from blacks, they said. Integration will destroy morale and discipline, they said.

But Harry Truman did it anyway.

Vance Coleman walked through the Senate office buildings with the group. He wore a sports jacket and slacks and his necktie was held in place with a tie bar that bore two silver stars. He spoke in a quick, clipped manner.

"Thought I knew what segregation was," he said, "but I have learned from these people today. I've talked to gays and lesbians and I've learned what segregation is for them. And I'm against it. African-Americans don't like to talk about this whole gay thing. But I see this as a civil rights issue, irrespective of what my former superior Colin Powell says."

Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an African-American who gets to wear four stars on his tie bar, does not see this as a matter of civil rights.

"Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic," he has written. "Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument."

Col. Lucian Truscott III, U.S. Army-Retired, disagrees. Truscott commanded a rifle company in Korea and an infantry battalion in Vietnam. He is a small, white-haired man, who stands ramrod straight when he talks. He was a little uncomfortable with his new role as lobbyist.

"I don't consider myself an activist for gay rights or women's rights, but for equal rights," he said. "I had a man in my rifle company in Korea, carried a BAR. That's a Browning Automatic Rifle. They called him a queer. He was a homosexual. I liked him. He was killed. I remember him. You know why I remember him? Because he was a good soldier. All men in the Army have the right to be treated equally."

Though no senators would see the group, staff members did. And by the time Truscott was finished talking to them, he looked like he had just charged up Pork Chop Hill. "Took a little guts for me to stand up and be counted," he confided. "But I'm glad I came."

Lt. Col. Chuck Magness, U.S. Army-Retired, stands about six-feet-four. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star. With a barrel chest and close-cropped white hair, he looks like a retired football player.

"I've known I was gay since I was seven years old," he said. "I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and commanded a company and all the time I was gay." Magness spoke of the incident this week near Camp Lejeune, N.C., where three Marines have been accused of beating a gay man while shouting, "Clinton's going to pay!"

"Those three have superiors who know what they are doing," Magness said. "What we are seeing now is a breakdown of leadership from the top."

Paul Camacho, short, bearded, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, was an infantry sergeant with the 9th Marines in Vietnam.

"I served nine months in Vietnam before I got shot," he said. "Nine months was a long time for an infantryman to last. But when it came to speaking up for gays, I found I was a coward. I have personal qualms about their lifestyle, OK? But that's my problem. Gays have served their country and served it well."

But what about the military's argument that gays must be kept out in order to preserve "good order and discipline"?

"Hey," Camacho said, "I didn't get shot in Vietnam to come back home and discriminate against anybody. Not anybody."

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