I never had a childhood hero, a celebrity or historic figure or famous athlete whom I looked up to above all others. To this day, it’s my friends and family whom I admire the most and try to emulate. That’s why, when someone asked me recently about a leader I admire, at first, the question had me stumped. Then I realized that my answer was a collective group, rather than an individual: those veterans who have participated in the Veterans History Project (VHP), and whose stories I spend my days exploring.
Possibly this answer occurred to me because I had just finished curating VHP’s newest online exhibit, Speaking out: LGBT Veterans, which focuses on a particularly courageous and resilient group of veterans, all of whom offer especially compelling examples of leadership. This latest edition of Experiencing War offers the stories of fifteen LGBT veterans, who served uniform from WWII to the present. Though these veterans served in different branches and conflicts, and in various capacities, as a group, their stories demonstrate these veterans’ intense patriotism and dedication to serving their country—despite the fact that oftentimes, their country did not welcome their service.
Take the story of Cristina Frisby. As an 18-year-old, she landed an appointment to the Naval Academy—only to be investigated and discharged after she admitted she was gay. In her oral history interview, she describes the agony of being denied the chance to serve simply because of who she was, and because she chose not to lie about it. The pain of losing this lifelong dream was so intense, she felt it physically. Years later, she decided to join the California National Guard—which she had heard did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation—with the hopes of using her skills to have a positive impact on the world. She deployed to Iraq in 2005, where she served as a recovery driver, helping to assist vehicles in distress. In addition to her oral history interview, her VHP collection includes both still photographs as well as home movies, offering a day-in-the-life view of her service in Iraq.
In addition to Frisby, Speaking Out features the stories of other veterans who were discharged because of their sexual orientation, including some who challenged this in court, such as Miriam Ben-Shalom and Brenda Vosbein, and those who drew on their experiences to become leading advocates for LGBT civil rights, like Franklin Kameny. Other profiled veterans, such as Andrew James Chier and Tammy Smith, discuss how discriminatory policies did not negatively affect their ability to advance in their military careers, though they also point to their continual need to keep their private lives totally private. Still other profiled veterans talk about serving after the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and some of the future challenges that LGBT veterans might face.
In all of these stories, there is a common thread of courage—and thus it’s no surprise that these veterans seem to be the very definition of leaders to look up to. In his oral history, Rupert Starr, a WWII combat veteran and former prisoner of war, describes making the decision in his mid-80s to speak out about his experiences as a gay veteran, in order to show that sexual orientation has no impact on ability to serve. Starr’s bravery, both during his service as well as after, resonates throughout the featured collections. As a combat veteran, Starr risked his life for his country, but as the stories in the featured collections illustrate, even those who were not on the front lines risked their careers, livelihoods, and personal identities for the opportunity to serve their country. The Veterans History Project is grateful to these veterans (and all participating veterans) for the courage they demonstrated not only in their service, but in telling their stories.