Katie Grant, 202-225-3130
WASHINGTON, DC - Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer delivered the keynote speech at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network 19th Annual Dinner "Making History, Moving Forward" this evening. At the event, he was awarded The Anna M. Curren Service Award in recognition of his leadership in passing legislation that would allow for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last Congress. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
"I want to share with you a letter I received from a constituent last fall.
“'Congressman Hoyer…I joined the Army Reserves Officer Training Corps last year after President Obama reaffirmed his campaign pledge to end ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’….I’ve always known that I wanted to serve my country in the Armed Forces, but one thing was always holding me back: I’m gay.
"'I’ve been open about that part of my life since high school, and I was not willing to go back into the closet. But after the President promised to end DADT, I decided to finally join ROTC, hopeful that I would not have to hide my sexuality for long….I quickly realized that I had made the right choice—although I was a new recruit, I was already in the top of my class of Cadet Privates First Class in land navigation….
"'But it became increasingly difficult to hide such an important part of who I am. And after learning about the continual delays in Congress…I decided I needed to quit ROTC until the ban was fully repealed. I’ve spent this past semester studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, and I will spend next semester in Cairo. I have invaluable experience abroad. I’m an advanced Arabic speaker. I’m an ‘A’ student at a top national university….
"'Most importantly, I want to serve my country. When I can serve openly, I will finish ROTC and be commissioned as an officer in the US Army. And there are many others like me—I've met them. So please, do whatever you can to repeal DADT.'
"Because of the hard work of the people in this room, that young man has a future of serving his country ahead of him. And just as importantly, our country will have one more American soldier of whom we can all be proud.
"For far too long, America threw away the service of people like him, simply because of who they were: 13,500 gay men and lesbians discharged under 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.' 13,500 who told America: 'I will wear your uniform with pride. I will serve with honor. I will risk my life under your flag.' 13,500 who were told in return: 'No thank you.'
"When we kicked those men and women out, we built a culture of deceit in an institution that ought to be founded instead on honor and honesty. And just as importantly, we built a weaker military: we lost translators, mechanics, engineers in a time of war—in a time of war, when we ought to welcome and honor service more than ever.
"Now, those days are coming to an end. They are coming to an end because of the overwhelming opinion of our troops, who supported repeal and were so often ahead of politicians on this issue. They are coming to an end because of the near-unanimous experience of our allies—nations with proud military traditions like Britain and Israel—and because of the openly gay troops who have fought side by side with Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"And those days are coming to an end because of what we did together. I was proud to co-sponsor the repeal of DADT and ensure that it got a vote on the House floor. I was proud to stand beside Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran who understands that it is wasteful and wrong to say no to the service of men and women who would take a bullet for our country, simply because of their sexual orientation. I was proud to fight for repeal, to ensure that it had the votes to pass and become law. I was proud to make the case for the patriotism, the dedication, and the courage of gay men and women in uniform.
"Now, repeal is law. And that is a civil rights triumph—for every single American. I want every one of us to be proud about what we did to make this a safer and more just country.
"But tonight, I’m here to urge you: keep working. Let’s monitor the transition to open service diligently; let’s ensure that it’s implemented quickly, fairly, and professionally. Let’s partner with our military leaders, who are doing an outstanding job in educating our troops about repeal and what it means. Let’s keep an eye on the process until it’s done. My outstanding staff members, Mariah Sixkiller and Rick Palacio, worked hard to make DADT history, and now my staff is following up on that work by meeting with military leaders and closely following the implementation process. Let’s remember: even though DADT is almost over, discrimination is not. It’s the job of every one of us to continue standing up for the rights of gay Americans who serve.
"Above all, I want every American to know this: every one of us has a stake in the end of DADT. Every one of us benefits from a stronger, more capable military. And as with every civil rights movement, we all benefit in another way: by reclaiming our history, by winning the right to tell our country’s story more fully and more honestly. It’s time to learn from the stories of the gay Americans who served and sacrificed for us—not always openly, but always bravely.
"Some of those stories are recent history: Eric Alva, a Purple Heart winner, the first American wounded in Iraq; Margarethe Cammermeyer, who served as a military nurse for more than three decades and fought her discharge under DADT; Paula Neira, whom I was proud to have introduce me, a nurse, a lawyer, and a Navy combat veteran who has stood up against discrimination in our military. Every one of them is a living testament to service and patriotism.
"But we also know that the stories stretch much farther back. As President Obama said, there is no doubt that gay Americans have fought and died in every one of our wars since America’s founding. They helped us win our independence; they helped liberate Europe; they have been there in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. For every one of those men and women who served in silence: the repeal of DADT is about them, too.
"Now it’s time to write a new generation of stories. They will be written by young men and women, like the young man who wrote me last fall. They will serve openly and proudly. They will be leaders in the civil rights movement of our time.
"They will endure sacrifice and separation from their loved ones—so that the rest of us don’t have to. Some of them will die for their country—so that the rest of us don’t have to.
"Let’s recognize their service—and every American’s service—for the precious gift it is. Let us give every American’s service the honor it deserves."