Lecture by veteran marks anniversary of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal
This evening, Thursday, Sept. 20, army veteran Rob Smith will speak in Maxey Auditorium at 7 to mark the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Smith concealed his sexuality for five years while serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Kuwait. After returning to the United States and attending college, he revealed his sexuality and now advocates for gay rights at colleges across the country. Smith’s lecture will address the historical context of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, as well as his personal experience serving under the policy and the challenges still faced by the GLBTQ movement.
“Not only is Rob Smith interesting, he’s also very complex,” said Matthew Ozuna, interim director of the Intercultural Center. “He is a soldier. He’s also a black American. He’s also a gay American. And he’s defied the silence associated with all those things and is advocating change in a whole host of areas.”
Coming from a working-class family in Ohio, Smith was awarded the Army Commendation Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge during his service overseas. He remained silent about his sexuality throughout his military service and attended college afterward through military benefits. Smith has spoken at colleges across the United States about the repressive environment created by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and contributed to the anthology For Colored Boys, which contains a collection of stories about issues faced by gay boys growing up in African-American and Latino communities.
“It’s good for me to spend the one-year anniversary of the repeal somewhere where I can talk about the issue and about the fact that there’s a lot of things we have to do to move forward while we’re fully integrating our gay and lesbian soldiers into the military,” said Smith.
Smith’s visit to campus has been organized by sophomore Evan Griffis, a GLBTQ intern who has been working over the summer to organize the event.
“I wanted to make sure that this was more than a one-hour lecture in Maxey,” said Griffis. “It’s really nice to see a speaker come and be so happy to meet with students.”
After the lecture Smith will sign books, and a private reception will be held for those involved in GLBTQ in the Baker Faculty Center. In addition to speaking in Maxey this evening, Smith will be visiting Professor Jim Hanson’s Political Campaign Rhetoric class. Griffis convinced the Intercultural Center (ICC), Whitman GLBTQ and the Office of the President to jointly fund the event, and organized much of the outreach and scheduling.
The ICC began planning to bring a speaker to campus to mark the anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell last spring.
“I think that this is a great time to honor that one-year anniversary but also to kind of look forward to the election. So if we have someone that can speak about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but then also talk about gay rights in general and more specifically marriage equality … then that would be great; that would be a slam-dunk event, and Rob Smith was that person,” said Ozuna.
The ICC is advertising the event throughout the whole Walla Walla Valley, and special efforts have been made to reach out to the Gay-Straight Alliance at Walla Walla High School, GLBTQ Walla Walla University, the Walla Walla branches of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Army Corps of Engineers and the VA Medical Center.
“I think that difference of opinion is a good thing. I encourage those [with different views] to show up and bring their opinions and viewpoint up in discussion and questions afterwards,” said Ozuna.
Gay rights will be a pivotal issue in the upcoming elections. While the Washington legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in February, opponents of same-sex marriage gathered enough signatures to put the bill on the ballot in November, delaying its implementation. Same-sex marriage is a controversial issue in Walla Walla, and Smith hopes his speech will help bring attention to the issue.
“What the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal has done for the LGBT movement is show us that we can win, we can move forward,” said Smith. “Marriage equality is definitely one of the more important ways that we can do that.”
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