Guest Column

Second Class Citizen
By Capt. Richard Richenberg

Today, I became a second class citizen. Not in the eyes of my friends, family, or co-workers, but in the eyes of the law. For two and a half years, I have struggled not to hear the words I heard today, issued forth by a federal judge and eagerly anticipated by self-righteous legislators, military leaders, and others who wrap themselves in the armor of what they call "Christianity," but what we all too sadly know is bigotry. The words were few, but their impact enormous: "Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted; plaintiff's complaint is dismissed."

I read through the 29 page opinion hoping that I might find something to soothe the sting of the fate it condemned me to. But, when I finished, the sting had only intensified. There were two basic findings in the opinion. The first was a reaffirmation of the judiciary's tendency to defer to the Congress on matters concerning the military. In my case, the thinking went something like this:

In 1993, Congress held broad public hearings on the issue of gays and lesbians serving in the military and concluded that allowing known homosexuals to serve would negatively impact unit cohesion and morale and, as a consequence, compromise our military readiness. The second finding was that the Air Force Board of Inquiry, held in June of 1994, acted correctly in finding that I had failed to rebut the presumption that, because I stated I was gay, I would necessarily engage in homosexual conduct

I'm not certain which of the findings cuts deeper and the fact that they are both erroneous doesn't seem to help much right now, either. It's not unusual or even unwise for a judge to defer to the experience and expertise of Congress on occasion. After all, it is Congress, not the judiciary, which is responsible for raising and maintaining our military forces. The flaw here is in the underlying premise one relies on in making such a deferment. Specifically, that Congress held unbiased, fact-oriented, in-depth hearings; commissioned studies by institutes of unquestionable integrity; considered all of the data it had before it; and reached a recommendation that was supported by that information. Anyone who remembers anything at all about those proceedings knows that only one of those four factors came even close to being realized: the commissioning of studies by reputable firms. The findings of those studies are now a matter of public record and it is painfully obvious that they were largely ignored. "Yes, there would be adjustments to make," they said, "No, it wouldn't really be any big deal to make them." And still, we ended up with the current policy dubbed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue."

Under the policy, Air Force regulations equate speech with actual conduct and, unless you can convince a board of three, presumably conservative, Air Force Colonels who likely have had zero education on homosexuality otherwise, you are recommended for discharge. Keep in mind that the board had no evidence of any conduct nor had anyone accused me of engaging in prohibited conduct. I did everything I could to meet the challenge of convincing the board that I would abide by military regulations if I were retained. Four of my co-workers testified as to my character and integrity. I presented my military record detailing all of my accomplishments and awards, and I even submitted to being cross-examined by the Air Force's attorney and by the board members themselves. Nonetheless, the board ignored me as a person, instead invoking their stereotypes and own ignorance to decide the issue.

I'm going to appeal the ruling but don't have much hope of it being overturned. The financial cost of my fight has already exceeded $37,000 but, more importantly, I've lost some friends along the way who didn't understand the toll this struggle has taken on me. I miss them every day and remain thankful for the friends who have stayed and the new ones who seem to find me when I need them most. The costs have been high, but the cost to our collective soul, to our value as human beings, will be far greater if we don't try. Fortunately, I am not standing alone. There are 16 others like me who are serving openly. My sister, Linda, and the rest of my family have never faltered in their support for me and there are so many of you who have taken the time to say a prayer, make a phone call, or send a note. Thank you all. One day, hopefully soon, we will never have to feel like second class citizens again.

From Capt. Richard Richenberg (RACEBANR@AOL.COM)
General information: Jeff Walsh
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