Gay rights activist and retired Staff Sgt. Eric Alva of the U.S. Marine Corps closed the Saint Mary's College Student Diversity Board's sixth annual Diverse Student Leadership Conference yesterday by urging his Little Theater audience to contribute to the fight for anti-discrimination.
Alva's speech, titled, "Ending ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" highlighted the history of the legislation since its signing in 1993 and his experience of serving under the legislation during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was the only law in this country that forced men and women to go to work and lie about who they are," Alva said.
At a time when gay military applicants were being turned away for being honest about their sexual orientation and identity on enrollment forms, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy required that questions about applicants' previous sexual relations with members of the same sex be stripped from military applications.
This change could have empowered gay citizens to apply for military service, but Alva said it was not the only stipulation of the agreement. While the military promised not to ask, gay soldiers had to promise they would not speak about their sexual orientation while serving in the military. If they did so, they could be discharged, Alva said.
But Alva said he could not come to terms with the contradiction that was occurring in his daily life.
As the first soldier to be injured and receive the Purple Heart in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Alva put his life on the line to fight for the freedoms of the American people.
"[I had] rights being stripped of me, even though I was fighting for rights," Alva said. "As a country that promotes democracy … we don't give those freedoms to everyone ... I was a man who was fighting for my country. It was for every single individual, not just the select few."
Those citizens outside of the "select few" were the ones being affected by DADT and the recent proposals to ban same sex marriage that were occurring at the same time, he said.
When the fight against DADT began to gain support, Alva's partner at the time encouraged him to do something while he still was well-known enough to make a difference. Alva came out during a televised conference, declaring to the nation and the world that he was a gay man and an American veteran.
Alva watched with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in Congress as the House approved the proposal to repeal DADT in May, but he also witnessed the Senate's rejection of the proposal in September.
"A lot of us thought that was the end," Alva said.
After a stand-alone bill proposing the repeal of DADT won the majority in both the House and Senate, Alva was present while President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law December 22.
"I was very fortunate that I got to stand there as a part of history," Alva said. "I got to represent the millions upon millions of people who have served in the military but who have had to do so quietly."
Alva said DADT was not immediately repealed after the act was signed into law, but the repeal has brought gay rights issues to the forefront of the national consciousness.
"The signing of the repeal of ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' opened up a sort of Pandora's box because it made people realize that everyone should be treated equally," Alva said.
Alva did not focus his speech solely on his experience as a gay man fighting in the armed forces. He also focused on his experience as a disabled man in American society. Three hours into his first tour of duty in Iraq in 2003, Alva was permanently injured by a land mine. His right arm was broken, his right leg was amputated and he still suffers from nerve damage in his arm today.
He jokingly referred to himself as the jackpot for a diversity conference — Latino, gay and disabled — but his experiences and educational background in social work have taught him that life is too precious to live according to the opinions of other people.
"We get this one life … tomorrow is just a word. It doesn't exist, so live your life to the fullest," he said. "No one owns my happiness, and no one owns your happiness. So, I'm going to keep speaking on this issue."
Alva concluded his speech by urging students to challenge their school's policy of nondiscrimination if those policies do not extend to instances of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Education is key in the awareness of gay and transsexual rights, he said.
"The country is changing on the request that all people be treated with equal rights … [so] I encourage you to be the people that you want to be."