Ten years ago this week, the discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed, finally lifting the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in our armed forces. From that morning, I most vividly remember two things. First, all the courageous veterans and servicemembers who had shared their stories. And second, that the sky hadn’t fallen.
In 2007, after returning from two years stationed in Bahrain I was faced with a choice: risk being outed by my fellow servicemembers, or leave the institution I love on my own terms. So I forfeited my chance to attend the U.S. Naval Academy with these words: “The principles of honor, courage, and commitment mean I must be honest with myself, courageous in my beliefs, and committed to my course of action. I understand that this statement will be used to end my Naval career.”
As a teenager, I was forced out of my home for being gay. I’ve also lost my mother to drugs, my grandfather to murder, and my mentor to suicide overseas. I have more experience with loss and loneliness than any person deserves. And after being discharged, I was once again truly on my own.
Two years later, inspired by the civil disobedience practiced by giants like John Lewis, I joined a sit-in to protest the California Supreme Court’s ruling that Proposition 8, a state ban on same-sex marriage, was enforceable. I had brought with me an American flag as a reminder that the horrific injustices perpetrated against women and gays I had witnessed during my tours of duty were now being similarly enshrined into my state’s constitution. Following my arrest, my summons notice read: “dismissed in the interest of Justice.”
Many months later, following hours of deposition and cross examination by the Department of Justice, I had the honor of telling my story to Judge Virginia Phillips as a principal witness in the federal court challenge that ultimately ruled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell unconstitutional. Judge Phillips would go on to cite my case as evidence that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell violated the First Amendment by forcing me to choose between my career and my physical safety.
After all of this, I was asked how I could still love the Navy. I responded without hesitation that I can and do love my country, while still dedicating my life to seeing it live up to its own promise.
I had always pledged to return to service if and when given the opportunity to do so with honor as an openly gay man, and that’s exactly what I did. Following repeal, I made it through a highly competitive process and was selected to become a judge advocate and Marine Corps officer. In all, I ended up serving seven years in the Marine Corps, fulfilling the dream I once put on hold to join the fight for justice.
I believe the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was ultimately successful because, for the first time, we centered the personal stories of veterans and servicemembers. My individual circumstance wasn’t any more or less worthy than theirs. In a way, my placement on the cover of the Washington Post was really a composite image of everyone who shared their experiences in order to make this moment possible. To them, I will always remain grateful.
Looking back on that bright fall day a decade ago, it seems so obvious that the sky didn’t come falling down. I realize now that, after having lived through years of being told that allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military would mean the end of peace and good order as we knew it, the feeling was actually bittersweet, as I witnessed life move on without skipping a beat.
My whole life, I’ve been told that I can’t. That I won’t be allowed to. That I’ll be punished, by the very people who purported to look out for my safety and security, for doing what was right. And at every pivotal moment, I tried to make the difficult decisions to do the right thing.
In a way, my campaign for Congress is a manifestation of that determination to do right by myself and others. I wouldn’t be here today if not for the countless — and often nameless — civil and human rights leaders. As citizens, each of us is called to contribute to making this a more perfect union. Rarely has that call been louder than it is now. To you, I say this: be fearless. Right will always win. And the sky will not fall.
Joseph C. Rocha is a Democratic candidate for Congress in the 50th District in East San Diego County.