Jim Darby served in the military from 1952 to 1956. He is gay, and though he loved his job as a communications technician translating Russian, after his four-year tour was finished, he thought it would be better to leave.
“I was not a threat to this country. I was a real asset, and so is every single soldier and sailor in this country, whether they’re gay or straight. It doesn’t make any difference,” he said.
Darby is one of many Chicagoans who fought the military’s so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for years.
In the early 1990’s, when President Bill Clinton vowed to remove the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers, Darby felt it was time to put pressure on leaders to make sure the ban would be lifted. He founded the Chicago chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights, and traveled to Washington, D.C., five times, hoping to be there when the president lived up to his promise.
But that didn’t happen.
“On the fifth trip, we decided we were going to sit down in front of the White House and not move,” Darby said.
The impromptu sit-in did not last long, however, and Darby and his fellow veterans were handcuffed and carried off to jail.
“Arrested didn’t mean anything, but the fact that it didn’t happen was so depressing that the gay veterans movement lost a lot of its energy and a lot of its members,” he recalled.
Clinton did not lift the ban, but instead began the current policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in which the military is not supposed to investigate soldiers’ sexuality. However, as former Marine Sgt. Marquelle Smith explained, that policy often did not keep gay men and women safe.
Someone, he doesn’t know who, reported to his superiors that he was gay. He never got to face his accuser, but instead was put before a military hearing.
“I never got an investigation. I was discharged under hearsay and the propensity that I might engage in homosexual activity,” he said. “I had never been treated that poorly in my life.”
Smith called his 2006 discharge “the most disgraceful thing that ever happened to me.” But said it propelled him into a life of service of another kind – advocating on behalf of gays and lesbians still serving their country.
Congress’s vote on Saturday to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell gave both men a sense of relief – but they still urge caution.
“I understand that it’s going to take some time. I wish it had happened sooner. But I also want to make sure that those that are still in the service are protected and obviously the biggest thing that everyone needs to know is that … even after it is signed, it is not an opportunity to come out. People must use caution who are still serving,” Smith said.
Celebrating with a martini, Darby said he wanted to commend both Illinois senators on their votes, especially Republican Mark Kirk.
“I honor him for that. I think he voted his heart. He voted the right way.”