May 24, 2012 | by Will Owen
A heroic effort

Michelle Benecke (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Most students are eager to take any scholarship money they can get their hands on, but for Michelle Benecke, this was not her greatest concern.

The former Army officer and co-founder of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), the leading group behind the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” forfeited an Army-funded fellowship to law school because it would have required her to stay in the closet. It may have required her to turn on fellow gay service members.

“I would have to lie about who I was,” Benecke says. “I could not fathom coming back and having to prosecute other gay people [as an Army lawyer].”

Benecke is one of five local LGBT activists being honored as a Capital Pride Hero this year. The other four are Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League; Eboné Bell, founder of B.O.I. Marketing and Promotions; Kevin Platte, founder of the D.C. Cowboys Dance Company; and Justin B. Terry-Smith, blogger of “Justin’s HIV Journal.”

“It’s wonderful to have one’s contributions recognized by one’s own community, and I feel especially honored to be in the company of the other honorees,” Benecke says.

The recipients of the 37th annual Capital Pride Heroes award will be honored at the Capital Pride Heroes Gala and Silent Auction. The event is Wednesday, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at LivingSocial (918 F St. NW). Tickets are $50 and are limited to 200 guests. The Gala will include an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and live entertainment. Business or cocktail attire is required. Tickets can be purchased online through capitalpride.org.

Long before she was recognized as a Pride Hero, Benecke began her career as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. She excelled, but was highly critical of the military’s policies toward gays.

“When I served, witch hunts were the way that the military implemented its gay ban,” she says. “While I was serving, I vowed to myself that I would form an organization that would get rid of the gay ban.”

Benecke was recognized by the military for her excellent leadership, and was selected for the prestigious fellowship to law school that she then forfeited. She enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1989, and began her fight against the military’s gay ban before graduating. She published law journal articles about the issue and testified in various panels on behalf of gay service members.

The day after President Clinton announced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Benecke co-founded SLDN with Dixon Osburn.

“We felt that if something wasn’t done, the plight of military members would be pushed under the rug,” Benecke says. SLDN was pivotal in the effort to repeal the policy. The organization provided legal assistance to thousands of military members, fostered a national movement against it, secured numerous military reforms and has been Capitol Hill’s go-to source for information about the issue.

SLDN continues to provide legal services to gay service members and veterans as America transitions to a post-“Don’t Ask” military and advocates against the exclusion of transgender people in the military.Although she is no longer SLDN’s CEO, Benecke continues to advise activists and military officials on how to shift to a policy of inclusivity in the military. She currently is a civil servant for the federal government, but is unable to reveal her position.

“I do see and have always seen the military as the linchpin to our freedom,” Benecke says. “In our country, the history has been that when exclusions hold in the military, it also sums up the other civil freedoms.”

“These award winners have demonstrated an extensive breadth and depth of experience and commitment to the LGBT community and beyond,” says Bernie Delia, board president of Capital Pride. “Michelle Benecke, in particular, is being honored this year for her work as a co-founder of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in light of all that she has done in this area and in particular because of the successful repeal of DADT.”

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