Norfolk, Virginia – With little or no privacy, and nowhere to escape from his anti-gay torment, a sailor targeted for harassment aboard nuclear submarine USS Florida (SSBN/SSGN – 728), became the center of a homophobic hazing case that has created a public relations nightmare for the U.S. Navy. The Associated Press revealed that the Navy released its report in March detailing months of anti-gay taunts against the unnamed submariner–leading to the dismissal of the Chief of the Boat, the submarine’s top non-commissioned officer. Master Chief Machinist’s Mate Charles Berry was fired by Captain Stephen Gillespie “for dereliction of duty” related to his failure to report and advise the commanding officer of the boat on issues arising among enlisted men.
The targeted sailor whose identity and sexual orientation have not be released in the investigative report, suffered incessant anti-gay jokes, was subjected to anti-gay epithets and nicknames, and was the victim of an alleged attempted rape at knife point by a man while the Florida was in a foreign port of call–Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Prior the the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the sailor was constantly taunted to “come out of the closet” as a gay man and jeered at for having a Filipino boyfriend, the ethnicity of the attempted rapist. He was labeled “Brokeback” for the famous gay-themed motion picture, Brokeback Mountain. The Navy report said that the sailor endured the harassment because he thought it would cease at some point. After eight months of constant homophobic harassment in 2011, the sailor finally passed along a note for help, saying that the combination of the attempted rape, the hounding, and the constant pressure put on him by crew members was driving him to suicide, or to an act of violence against his tormentors.
The Navy report says that sailors who participated in the hazing did not appreciate the psychological harm their actions caused their shipmate. The report also states that Chief Berry did not participate in the anti-gay hazing of the sailor, but did not report what was going on to his superior officers, either. As background to the embarrassing revelations of anti-gay abuse, the report also detailed that the Florida had developed a whole culture of heterosexist and homophobic prejudice, and detailed a number of examples.
In response, the Navy ordered training and counseling up and down the line to prevent anything like this from happening again. Besides the chief of the boat, several junior crew members who participated in the anti-gay harassment have also faced disciplinary actions, including loss of rank and pay. In its March 30 statement to the public, the Navy said: “The Navy’s standards for personal behavior are very high and it demands that sailors are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. When individuals fall short of this standard of professionalism and personal behavior, the Navy will take swift and decisive action to stop undesirable behavior, protect victims and hold accountable those who do not meet its standards.”
This week, Vice Admiral John Richardson who commands the Norfolk-based submarine force, issued a blog post in response to the scandal this incident had created in the submarine service in which he focuses attention on the importance of character in Navy life. “A violation by one seems to be a violation against all,” the admiral wrote.
The USS Florida, an Ohio-class nuclear submarine homeported at Naval Submarine Base King’s Bay, Georgia, participated in action against Libyan forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi in March 2011 by launching scores of Tomahawk missiles, the only one of the four Ohio-class SSGNs available to serve in Operation Odyssey Dawn. Apparently, the senseless anti-gay torment of the sailor in question was going full tilt during the period of combat operations.
Washington, DC – On a red letter day when lawmakers voted to end the most notorious anti-gay policy in the federal canon, LGBT servicemembers and veterans who have been murdered because of their sexual and gender non-conformity must not be forgotten during the celebrations over passage of repeal of DADT. In a historic vote in the history of the human rights movement, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to end the ban on LGBT patriots from serving openly in the armed services of the United States. Saturday afternoon, 65 Senators voted for repeal with 31 in opposition. A simple majority of 51 was all that was required for passage of the Senate bill, which is identical to the one passed earlier in the week by the House of Representatives. Eight GOP Senators joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the repeal of the 17-year-old discriminatory policy that ended the military careers of 13,500 women and men because of their sexual orientation. Joe Manchin, the freshman Senator for West Virginia, was the only Democrat not voting for passage. According to the New York Times, his office informed the public that he had a “family commitment” he could not break.The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature to set the repeal in motion. GOP opponents of the repeal criticized the Democratic leadership of the Senate for the vote in the lame duck session just before the Holiday recess. Senator Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, disputed the Republican claims that Democrats were ramming legislation through just to please the so-called “gay lobby.” In remarks to the New York Times, Senator Levin (D-Michigan) said: “I’m not here for partisan reasons. I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.” Yet it is not only for the living that this vote is significant. Our military dead are honored by this historic vote to end anti-LGBT discrimination, among whom are far too many gay servicemembers who were killed because of their sexual orientation. Our gay military martyrs, murdered because of homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia in the armed services loom large in the memory of the LGBTQ community today because they are both a sign of hope and caution. They are a sign of hope that no more women and men need lose their lives in the military because of their sexual orientation and gender presentation. They are a sign of caution, because the passage of DADT repeal in no way guarantees the end of anti-gay violence in the military. We must name our LGBT military dead until violence against queer servicemembers ceases forever: Seaman Allen Schindler was beaten to death by shipmates in a public toilet in Sasebo, Japan. PFC Barry Winchell was murdered with a baseball bat in the Army barracks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Seaman August Provost was shot to death on base in San Diego, and then his body was set afire in a guard shack in the vain attempt to destroy evidence of the murder. Army veteran Michael Scott Goucher was lured into a fatal ambush by local youths near his home in Pennsylvania. These four are representative of the many more slaughtered by ignorance and hate by fellow servicemembers and civilians. Pundits say that after President Obama signs the Repeal Act into law, it will still take at least sixty days for the military ban to be lifted for LGBT military personnel. Until that time, the current discriminatory law stays in effect. But the culture of violence that harasses and kills LGBT women and men who wear the uniform remains virulently poised to take more lives until the root of fear is eliminated in the armed services. To that end, the historic passage of the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is simply the beginning of a new campaign, in the name of our gay military martyrs, to replace the fear and loathing of the sexual minority with education and respect.
Omaha, NE – Protesters picketing a military funeral in Omaha were assaulted by a man squirting pepper spray out his pickup truck window as he drove by them on August 28. The assailant, George Vogel, 62, was arrested and charged with 16 counts of misdemeanor assault, and one felony count because the pepper spray hit a police officer. A reporter was also affected by the spray. The motorist was also charged with child neglect since his own child was in the truck at the time of the assault, according to CNN. Police confirmed that Vogel allegedly extended his arm from the cab of the Ford 150 pickup truck, and discharged a “large can” of pepper spray at the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. The funeral was being held at First United Methodist Church for the late Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Bock, 26, who died in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on August 13. The WBC protest at Bock’s funeral is part of Phelps’s strategy to publicize his campaign against gays and lesbians by targeting fallen U.S. servicemembers, since the United States has become a “fag-enabling” nation that is under God’s wrathful judgment. Members of the church at the Omaha protest carried signs reading “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Blew Up the Troops” and “AIDS Cures Fags.” The pepper spray assault occurred while nearly 600 members of the Patriot Guard Riders ringed the church to prevent the protest and counter-protest from disturbing the funeral services. No members of the Riders were affected by the spray. A major case involving a challenge to free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment has grown from a 2006 protest carried out against the funeral of a soldier from Maryland, in which the father of the deceased soldier sued Phelps and the church for 5 million dollars for harassing the family during the funeral. Albert Snyder, father of the fallen soldier from Maryland, accuses Phelps and his church of emotional distress and anguish. A lower court imposed a fine of up to 8 million dollars against Westboro Baptist, which was later reduced to a 5 million dollar award to Mr. Snyder. A court of appeals overturned the verdict, citing the protections afforded by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case in October of this year. Supporters of the Snyders have lined up against defenders of freedom of speech as the case goes to the high court. Phelps continues his schedule of protests with impunity. While the content of Phelps’s protests is so disturbing that high emotions can be readily understood, the larger issue of freedom of speech and expression takes center stage for the Unfinished Lives Project. We are under no illusions about the nature of Phelps’s work. He is the most notorious homophobe of this age, and if a link could be successfully established between his hate speech and violence against LGBTQ people, as we believe does exist, he and his church members deserve the punishment of the law. But freedom of speech is a defining right guaranteed all Americans under the provisions of the Constitution. LGBTQ people are vouchsafed the right of protest and speech under the same provisions of the law, and to surrender to emotion, no matter how justified it seems in the short term would be to gag and throttle the struggle for human rights in this nation. So, regretfully, the Unfinished Lives Project must support freedom of speech, even for one of the most noxious of our enemies. We must believe that the rightness of full equality will win out in the end, no matter how spiteful the opposition becomes. And, in the spirit of appreciation for the Snyders and all other families and friends of fallen U.S. servicemembers, we offer out sympathy and condolences.