Brigadier General Tammy S. Smith, deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Army Reserve, was among a contingent of about 35 LGBT veterans and their supporters participating in a Veterans Day wreath laying ceremony on Monday in D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.
The event, sponsored by Center Military, a project of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, took place at the gravesite of Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who came out as gay on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, becoming the first active duty service member to challenge the military’s ban on gays.
Matlovich, who died in 1988, was buried in a section of Congressional Cemetery that has since become the burial site for other LGBT people, including military veterans.
“Our experience as LGBT veterans is different,” Smith, the military’s highest-ranking openly gay officer, told the gathering.
“And we have a common understanding of what that difference is,” she said. “We come from a place where we were not welcome and in many cases we were vilified…and people tried to find out who we were in order to prevent us from continuing our service,” she said.
“And yet despite that, the most honorable thing that we did and the thing that many of us are the most proud of is that we served our nation,” Smith said.
“So having a separate memorial and coming to places such as Leonard’s gravesite acknowledges that our experience is different but we have that common understanding that we are veterans in our nation’s military.”
Others participating in the ceremony were U.S. Marine veteran Nicholas Baatz, co-founder of the local veterans assistance group LGBT Fallen Heroes Fund; former Navy SEAL Kristin Beck, a decorated combat veteran who became the first SEAL to come out as transgender; and Navy veteran Eric Perez, coordinator of the D.C. Center’s military project.
Beck disclosed her transition on CNN 18 months after retiring from active duty service. She joined Smith at Monday’s ceremony in rejoicing over the sweeping changes in the military and society in recent years, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But she noted that for transgender service members, serving openly in the military is still not an option and the struggle to overcome that hurdle continues.
“So coming here and everyone being here right now — this entire group — this is what it’s all about,” she said. “But being out is not enough. We need to be active. Out is not good enough anymore. We’ve come a long way but we have a lot further to go.”
Added Beck, “Just like every one of us, I’m proud to be an American, I’m proud to be an LGBT American, and I’m very proud to be a veteran.”
With Beck and Smith standing beside him, Perez placed a wreath next to the Matlovich grave as the others looking on, including several in military uniforms, stood at attention.
“It’s the actions of these people who have spoken here today that give us hope,” Baatz told the gathering. “When I first came out in the Marine Corps I really didn’t have a community,” he said.
But discovering the Matlovich gravesite at Congressional Cemetery “gave me hope that the work that he did and the work that you guys are doing – it’s making a difference,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just showing up. So I want to thank everybody for doing that today.”
Smith, who was joined at the ceremony by her spouse, Tracy Hepner, said after the event that the changes that have occurred in the military since she first visited the Matlovich gravesite in 2009 have been dramatic.
“When I came here to this gravesite for the first time I literally hid, even though it was a public event,” she said.
Smith, who has served in the military for 26 years, was referring to a gathering at the site as part of the October 2009 March for LGBT Equality, which traveled from the White House to the Capitol.
“And now to be able to come here on Veterans Day and acknowledge the service of all veterans is extremely moving for me,” she said.
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Murphy, who attended the ceremony in uniform, said he, too, was honored to be able to openly attend an LGBT veterans event. He’s currently serving his 25th year in the Air Force.
“I think it’s very important that we do this type of thing,” he said. “Initially I was planning to go to the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. But I think this one is important because it’s very much a part of what I am.”
Perez, an Army veteran who served a tour in Iraq, said he was pleased with how the event went.
“It was a beautiful day and there was a really good turnout,” he said. “I’m very happy to be a veteran today.”