On Saturday, former U.S. Army Sgt. Danny Ingram will lead the annual Mid-South Pride parade along Cooper Avenue. He was one of the first soldiers discharged under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Ingram's presence is fitting as this year's Pride theme, "Our Rights Are Civil Rights," addresses the need to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as well the need for equal marriage rights, LGBT-inclusive hate crimes legislation, and domestic partnership benefits from employers.
The Pride Parade kicks off at 4 p.m. at First Congregational Church and ends at Peabody Park, where the gay pride festival will be ongoing. Check the Mid-South Pride website for a full schedule.
The Flyer ran a short story this week on Ingram's involvement with American Veterans for Equal Rights and the fight to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Here's the entire interview:
Weren’t you one of the first discharged under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"?
My discharge was already underway when all of the talk started up about ending the ban of gays in the military. So they put everything on hold. I think it was in the fall of 1993 that they finally decided they were going to do implement "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." So my discharge started back up again. I was discharged in April 1994.
Does that mean your commanding officer knew you were gay before the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was in place?
My commanding officer asked if I was gay and I replied. But since that was before "Don’t Ask, Don’t tell" was implemented, they began my discharge process.
Now you're involved with American Veterans for Equal Rights. What kind of work do they do?
We provide support for our troops that are overseas, and we’re working to make sure that everybody gets their benefits. That’s particularly difficult considering that [gay people] can’t always talk truthfully and honestly about what’s going on in their lives.
One of the things we’re most concerned about is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For gay soldiers who have the added stress of having to maintain a double life, they're likely to suffer from "double PTSD." In order to get help for that, they have to be truthful with a counselor. Because they can’t be honest about who they are, then they probably won’t even seek that help. That’s very unfortunate.
Let’s say someone comes back from serving overseas in Iraq, and they’re still active duty. They’re having problems, as so many people do. But they can’t really get help because they can’t be truthful about who they are. They can’t bring their spouse into the effort because they can’t let anyone know they have a spouse. It's much less likely that they’ll get the help they need with PTSD.
How do you help gay people get their military benefits?
With someone going to the Veterans Administration to try and get their benefits, it’s very hard to go through all the paperwork. A lot of people will go to groups called veteran service organizations, like the American Legion and the VFW, to get help with that. Gay people are less likely to do that because they fear they won’t be welcomed or get the help they need in those groups.
We are a veteran service organization, a 501-C19 and we hope to be able to fill that gap, to make sure that every soldier gets the benefits they’re supposed to get when they arrive home.
Do think President Barack Obama will eventually change the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy?
Changing the policy isn’t really up to Obama. He can provide leadership, but Congress has to make the change. There is a bill in Congress called the Military Readiness Enhancement Act and it would lift the ban. I think it will pass.
Hasn't Obama come under fire from the LGBT community lately for not stopping the military’s discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?
Obama has not stopped the discharges and I don’t personally understand that. But there is a case in California that went to the federal court there, and that court ruled that the ban is unconstitutional. Normally, at that point, the Justice Department would step in and appeal that decision so it would go to a higher court. Obama’s Justice Department chose not to appeal, therefore allowing that court decision to stand. So they’re making progress in more quiet ways.
What problems does the policy create for the military?
To me, the biggest issue is how many American soldiers have to die on the battlefield because the medic that could have saved their lives was kicked out under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The way the military works now is very much teamwork. Teamwork is critical to the success of the mission. If you remove a member of the team, you jeopardize the success of the mission. Particularly with translators and the medical corps. A lot of people have been kicked out of those areas.
Do other countries have similar bans for their military units?
Everybody else now has gotten rid of their bans — the British, the Australians, the Canadians, the Israelis. A lot of the British military said they would walk off if the ban was lifted, and then one day, they flipped the switch, the ban was gone, and nothing happened. I don’t believe the American service members are any less professional than our British service members.
What reason does the U.S. military give for maintaining the policy?
The military says they have this policy because they believe it would damage morale and unit cohesion if troops knew there was a gay person in their unit. Yet if they really believed the presence of a gay person would damage unit cohesion, you’d think they’d immediately get rid of gay people when they find out while serving overseas. But they don’t do that. They wait until the person comes home from Iraq with the rest of the unit to kick them out. That goes to show that the military itself doesn't believe that gay people are bad for unit cohesion. They know they’re an important part of the team. There’s no valid excuse anymore. It’s past time that it needs to repealed.
What will you be doing at Mid-South Pride?
I’ll be leading the parade as the color guard. Then, after the parade, I’m going to play Taps. We lost a member of our own organization in Baghdad last year, Major Alan G. Rogers. He was buried at Arlington. We know he was gay because we knew him. We will honor him by playing Taps at Pride celebrations around the country.
Is there a local Tennessee chapter of the American Veterans for Equal Rights?
I would like to start one while I'm in Memphis. We need five people to start one. I will be at the festival signing people up. We don’t encourage active military to join, but rather veterans.
For more information on American Veterans for Equal Rights, check out their website.