THE HISTORY OF
GAY VETERANS MEMORIAL
CATHEDRAL CITY, CA
By Tom Swann, Founder
I wish to share my reflections on how far the LGBT community has advanced since the LGBT Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated in May 2001. Palm Springs and Cathedral City both have lesbians and gay men who serve in the majority on the city council. LGBT who have moved to the desert later than 2003 when openly gay Ron Oden was elected Palm Springs Mayor are often unaware that LGBT struggled to gain equality and political clout.
In 1995 I lived in Ventura County and was selected as co-grand marshal of Palm Springs Pride. The Pride Parade that year was on quiet neighborhood streets. A few years later it took the threat of a lawsuit and ACT UP demonstrations against former Mayor Will Kleindienst before the Pride Parade could be held on Palm Canyon Drive. I moved to Rancho Mirage in 1998 hoping to be active in the LGBT community. I noticed on Veteran’s Day November 11, 1998 that gay veterans were noticeably absent from the Palm Springs Veteran’s Day parade. On Memorial Day 1999 the Memorial Day ceremony at Desert Memorial Park recognized many veteran organizations except the gay veterans. I was featured in a color photo in the Desert Post Weekly wearing my Marine Corps uniform. A woman noticed that I wore a black armband with a pink triangle that said “Lift the Ban” (on gays serving in the military) and she tried to remove it from my arm.
In September 1999 I became President of Palm Springs Gay Veterans. Other officers included Charlie Sharples, Daryl James, Richard Casaday, Brett Fineout and Melinda Tremaglio. Randy Schecher became an officer a short time later. The gay veterans worked closely with veteran Fred Bilodeau and other members of the newly formed Desert Stonewall Democratic Club. Together they set goals that the gay veterans should be included and visible in the Veteran’s Day Parade and the veteran ceremonies held on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Ultimately the goal was to dedicate America’s first LGBT Veteran’s Memorial and the target date was the first Memorial Day of a new millennium in 2001.
Immediately after Palm Springs Pride in November 1999 Rep. Mary Bono was scheduled to address the Riverside County Veterans Advisory Committee at Rock Garden Café. Bono served on the military Personnel sub-committee of the House Armed Services Committee. This meant the subject of gays in the military was topic of her sub-committee. Desert Stonewall and the gay veterans packed the room awaiting Bono. Bono was a last minute cancellation and she has never agreed to speak before this county committee ever since. In 2001 she asked to be taken off the Armed Services Committee.
When the gay veterans tried to be included in the Veteran’s Day 1999 ceremony at Desert Memorial Park there was opposition. The Desert Veterans Memorial Association (DVMA) was a coalition of American Legion, VFW and DAV posts of the Coachella Valley who sponsored these ceremonies. The DVMA felt gay veterans were not legitimate because their organization was not chartered by Congress. Critics alleged gays were too feminine to join the military and were discharged during Boot Camp. Another false premise of non-gay veterans was that the gay veterans were “straight” while serving in the military and did not choose the gay lifestyle until after their military service. Cathedral City Mayor Gary Amy received phone calls from constituents warning that gay veterans would come to the cemetery ceremony wearing leather, whips and chains. The gay veterans attended the ceremony peacefully and Brett Fineout wore his Army Drill Instructor uniform. Late Cliff Anchor, former post commander of Alexander Hamilton American Legion Post 448 San Francisco attended this ceremony.. Gary Amy was the keynote speaker and for the first time ever included the sacrifices of gay veterans in the keynote address.
The Palm Springs American Legion and VFW posts both argued against the inclusion of gay veterans in the Veteran’s Day parade. Palm Springs Mayor Will Kleindienst heard statements that since the gay veterans were not chartered by Congress they were not a legitimate veteran’s organization. At the DVMA meeting held at the Palm Springs American Legion Hall Gil Eidt said the issue of marching in the parade belonged solely to the city. One drunk Legion member stood up and said allowing gays to march would bring about “faggots and flashers” in the parade. Paul Marchand drafted the very first resolution adopted by Desert Stonewall which was a battle cry to Mayor Kleindienst warning him of dire circumstances if he did not permit gays to march in the parade. I told the Mayor the ACLU would most likely sue the city so the gay veterans were permitted to march in the parade in 1999. Prior to the parade Mayor Kleindienst asked Charlie Sharples if he had done enough to keep the gay veterans safe from harm in the parade. The gay veterans received loud sustained applause along the parade route. Pat Johansen marched with gay veterans while Mel Tips went to be in the Phoenix parade instead. Cliff Anchor rode in a convertible. Daryl James was afraid the rainbow flag would upset the Mayor so he took it out of the color guard with the service flags and Cliff Anchor held it instead. The veterans paused and twirled their banner in front of the reviewing stand. Col. Lewis Miller called them a “Fuc&^$# disgrace” but the Desert Sun news reporter declined to mention this in the newspaper because Millet was a Medal of Honor recipient. KPSI radio went silent during the time gay veterans passed the reviewing stand during their live radio broadcast of the parade. CNN Headline News featured the gay veterans.
The battle for gays to join the DVMA was quite strange. The chair of the DVMA was late World War II veteran Gil Eidt. When gays asked to join the DVMA they were unaware Gil was a much closeted gay man. At the VFW and American Legion Hall Gil Eidt was straight as an arrow. He repeated to me the same falsehood that gays were too feminine to serve in the military. Eidt quoted a section of the DVMA Bylaws and said gay veterans were ineligible to join the DVMA because they were not chartered by Congress. Late Cliff Anchor helped me write a letter to have Eidt reconsider his ruling. The letter seeking reconsideration stated that Congress discontinued chartering veteran organizations in recent years because the government did not want to appear condoning or in support of the American Legion’s discrimination against African-American veterans in posts located in southern states. Congress found that some chartered veteran organizations were violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since the DVMA knew Congress stopped chartering veteran organizations the DVMA must be using this outdated requirement to deny gay veterans equal access just like literacy tests were used to deny African-Americans the right to vote.
The Internet explains what “chartered veteran organizations” means. Congressionally chartered veteran organizations have been trained and certified by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims by veterans for service-connected disability compensation under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The VA Secretary also enables veteran organizations that do not have a charter to perform these tasks. A congressional charter is a law passed by the United States Congress that states the mission, authority and activities of a group. Congress issued federal charters from 1791 until 1992 under Title 36 of the United States Code.
The relationship between Congress and the organization is largely a symbolic honorific giving the organization the aura of being "officially" sanctioned by the U.S. government. However Congress does not oversee or supervise organizations with the charter (other than receiving a yearly financial statement). In order to clarify that the chartered organizations are not government entities and not supervised by the government both the House and the Senate in 1990s agreed not to issue additional charters.
The gay veterans asked the county veterans service officer to help and he wrote Gil Eidt a letter quoting another section in the Bylaws that Eidt failed to mention. In that section it clearly stated any veteran living in the Coachella Valley could join the DVMA. This implied that the DVMA was permitting veteran groups that began after 1992 and thus were without a charter to join. Five months later Eidt welcomed me and Charlie Sharples to our first DVMA meeting where we were recognized as members. Just months before his death I made it possible for Eidt to receive an award from the Governor’s office (Secretary of Veterans Affairs) which made him view me as a friend.
I was founding chair of the California Gay Veterans Memorial Association (CGVMA). A sad example of jealousy was the letter from the national president of gay veterans we received when we first announced we planned to build the gay veteran's memorial. This letter stated he was opposed to the memorial ever being built and called it the "Tom Swann memorial". Our committee members such as Ron Oden, Greg Pettis, Pat Johansen, Randy Schecher, Charlie Sharples, Fred Bilodeau and others discussed this letter of objection by James Donovan very closely. We asked what right does the gay veteran’s national president have to tell the people of Palm Springs what to do? Pat Johansen said no one should object to any memorial honoring gay veterans and the person who wrote the letter needs help. So we ignored the letter and moved forward. In the past ten years no other person or organization has ever called the gay veteran's memorial the "Tom Swann memorial" ever again.
When this group (CGVMA) proposed the Gay Veterans Memorial the trustees of the Palm Springs Cemetery District were opposed. Since the cemetery is public and the trustees are appointed by County Supervisors it would not have been politically correct to discriminate against gay veterans. So they adopted rules and then changed them twice during the application process in a desperate attempt to find a reason to disapprove of the memorial.
I became angry by the tactics of the cemetery trustees. When the process began the cemetery had no rules whatsoever and two veteran memorials were near the outdoor chapel. When gays asked to place a memorial the cemetery suddenly found the need for rules.
Before the gay veterans submitted their application for a memorial I recall speaking by phone to the cemetery legal counsel. He asked me specifically if the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had recognized gay veterans. I told him yes but said we lacked a Congressional charter. On Ash Wednesday February 2001 the legal counsel met with Charlie Sharples and Greg Pettis and made assurances to them the memorial should be something that can be approved.
The first set of rules by the cemetery trustees said only veteran groups who are members of the DVMA could dedicate a memorial. The trustees apparently thought the gay veterans were not legitimate enough to be DVMA members. The trustees knew the DVMA had never listed the gay veterans as a member organization in their program at cemetery memorial services. The trustees are supposed to make decisions and vote on public policy. But instead of saying they did not want a gay memorial they had crafted rules placing the onus on the DVMA to disqualify the gay veterans from having a memorial.
The trustees were unaware that six months prior the DVMA had grudgingly accepted gay veterans as members. The cemetery trustees asked the DVMA to send them a letter indicating whether or not gay veterans were members. At a trustee meeting several gays testified in favor of the memorial. Pat Johansen was the only non-gay to speak and she did a fabulous job. Then the trustees paused the discussion while they waited over fifteen minutes with the news media expecting a fax letter to arrive from the DVMA. No fax ever arrived and the trustees postponed the vote to the next meeting.
Dan Cohen of the Jewish War Veterans was head of the DVMA at this time. He said he would not lie about the gay veterans and their membership in the DVMA. At the same time he was unhappy that the trustees had written rules placing them in an awkward position of taking a stand about a memorial proposed by other fellow veterans. The application for a gay memorial was an agenda item and any DVMA letter about the gay veterans and the memorial would be a matter of the public record. The DVMA told the trustees to change their rules and keep them out of the process.
We attended the trustee meeting and waited for the DVMA fax letter that was never sent. The trustees voted to postpone our proposed memorial until next month. The gay veterans and news media left the trustees meeting room at the cemetery. We told the news media we were members of the DVMA and predicted the DVMA letter would arrive before next month’s meeting. Thus the gay memorial should be approved.
As soon as we departed the cemetery their legal counsel presented a new set of rules that he had already prepared taking the DVMA out of the process. The trustees voted to make it more difficult for a gay memorial by making it mandatory for a veteran organization to be chartered by Congress.
In my phone call to the counsel before we submitted our application I told him we lacked a Congressional charter. Apparently the legal counsel presented to the trustees a set of eligibility requirements for a group in order to dedicate a memorial. The trustees had selected the only criterion that was impossible for any veteran organization that began after 1992. That criterion would block the gay veterans so the counsel did as he was directed. The counsel was a gay man who was a friend of mine and he supported the gay veteran’s memorial. Several weeks earlier the counsel assured Charlie Sharples there should be no further obstacles for the memorial to be approved. Now the trustees were writing new rules that meant the gay memorial would be rejected. Obviously something had gone awry and the counsel may have been just as surprised as we were that the trustees would oppose the memorial. Charlie Sharples felt like he had been misled and that the committee would not have spent so much time raising money to build the memorial if we had been told it was not going to be approved by the trustees. Pat Johansen stressed that we should not take the legal counsel’s work in a personal manner. He is hired to prepare the rules the trustees vote to adopt. He was just doing his job.
At this time the Pentagon was insisting open gays harmed unit cohesion and for a very long time were a security risk. Congress did not think highly of gays because they had passed the” Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”’ law in 1994. So the trustees bought into these false stereotypes and felt a gay memorial “honoring” the service members that the Pentagon viewed as detrimental to the military mission was inappropriate. Our society does not erect memorials to honor people who engage in what they call sinful immortal behavior.
When the trustees voted that only veteran organizations chartered by Congress could dedicate a memorial the cemetery had an existing memorial from a group not chartered by Congress but the trustees placed this new restriction to deny the gay memorial.
*The Desert Sun covered the controversy about the proposed gay veteran’s memorial several times and wrote an op-ed piece advising the trustees to approve the memorial. President Bill Clinton and Cathedral City Mayor George Stettler submitted letters endorsing the memorial. City leaders like Greg Pettis and Ron Oden served on the committee that designed the memorial. Randy Schecher and members of Palm Springs AVER were instrumental in fundraising for the memorial. Prominent non gays such as Pat Johansen and the members of PFLAG provided leadership during the process and donated money to pay for the memorial.
*The trustees may have been opposed to the memorial because of the hard work of those who spoke out against the historic idea. Nationally syndicated radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan spoke out against the memorial. The chairman of the state veteran’s commander’s council told the news media gays are too feminine to serve in the military and could not make it through boot camp. He insisted the term “gay veteran” was an oxymoron. Late Medal of Honor winner Colonel Lewis Millett said it was a “fuc&^%$ disgrace”. Others called it a memorial to pedophiles while some said it would be as foolish as building a memorial for left-handed veterans. So-called Rev. Fred Phelps family of Topeka Kansas opposed the memorial. After it was dedicated the Phelps family made a special trip to California in order to protest the memorial. The Cathedral City Police blocked Phelps family when they tried to toss urine on the memorial. There are other memorials less controversial dedicated to Catholic Priests killed in wars, Tuskegee Airmen and Mexican-American veterans.
I told my teacher late Venerable Morris Kight that the trustees had played a game with us. He had great interest in the memorial. I was exasperated that we were negotiating in good faith with trustees who are dishonest. We had the courage to say publicly we were proud gay veterans and the trustees were prejudiced who were afraid to say it publicly and went to great lengths to block us. Under most circumstances our pending application that was tabled until the next meeting would still be evaluated by the rules and process that were in place when we submitted our application. But the trustees said we had to abide by their revised rules.
There were some members of our committee that could not see the unethical tactics of the trustees. The trustees smiled when they told us to obtain a Congressional charter when they knew Congress discontinued this practice in 1992. The trustees were discriminating against gay veterans in a very subtle manner. In 1982 late Coretta Scott King told me subtle discrimination in California is more dangerous than overt discrimination. She said if you are African-American in Alabama and you go to see a new doctor and you notice a Confederate flag bumper sticker on his car you have been warned you picked the wrong doctor. Subtle discrimination sneaks up on you and strikes without warning.
I prayed to the Holy Spirit which is an advocate for truth and gently prompts us to make the right decisions. I was led to the realization that the trustees were engaged in subtle discrimination. The trustees request that gay veterans seek a Congressional charter so they could submit their proposed gay memorial for a vote was presented as something reasonable but they were wolves wearing sheep’s clothing. Since we had first presented our idea for a memorial the trustees had been in control and manipulated the process so it leads us to failure. The trustees surprised us with rule changes and I felt it was time for gay veterans to surprise them and go bold.
So I withdrew the proposal from gay veterans to the cemetery trustees for a gay memorial. The cemetery manager tried to talk me out of it and some members of the committee felt I was making a mistake. I knew it was impossible for a Republican controlled Congress to reverse itself after eight years and start chartering veteran organizations just so gays could have a memorial.
Late Venerable Morris Kight sponsored a breakfast with LGBT activists in West Hollywood for the purpose of hearing my report on the status of the proposed gay veteran’s memorial. I shared how the trustees had blocked our memorial. Kight said when he and others tried to open the first LGBT Community Services Center the Los Angeles County government created and then changed the rules numerous times hoping the gays would give up their dream of a center. Kight said the gays persevered and ultimately prevailed. Kight inspired me to continue this project.
As chair of the CA Democratic Party Veteran’s Caucus I had developed a close relationship with the AMVETS State Commander. I was the co-chair of the Salute to Veterans at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. There was a long list of veterans who coveted the handful of seats on stage at Patriotic Hall. The stage included the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel Gober, Medal of Honor winner Senator Dan Inouye, of Hawaii, James Carville, Rep. Lane Evans and Rep. Bob Filner. I reserved a seat on stage for AMVETS State commander Dennis O’Dell. I appointed O’Dell to the caucus board and we testified before the state legislature together. O’Dell had been to my home and was very fond of me. We had discussed starting the first AMVETS Post in the Coachella Valley. I asked O’Dell to come to Palm Springs and launch our post and sign an application for AMVETS to dedicate a gay veteran’s memorial. AMVETS is chartered by Congress. O’Dell did not hesitate to agree to do this for me. I do not believe O’Dell would have done this for any other gay person than myself and I know that no other AMVETS state commander before O’Dell and after O’Dell would have signed up for a gay memorial. I feel by God’s design O’Dell served a one year term as state commander while I was caucus chair which was the same year we applied for the gay memorial.
We invited the cemetery manager to attend the organizational meeting of AMVETS Post 66. Some of the charter post members included myself, Charlie Sharples, Daryl James, Randy Schecher, Mel Tips, late Rusty Pounds, Melinda Tremaglio, Brett Fineout, Fred Bilodeau and other gay veterans. In two weeks I had withdrawn the application for a memorial by gay veterans and recruited the gay veterans to start an AMVETS Post and I was elected Post Commander.
O’Dell signed the application for the gay memorial at this meeting but instead of giving it to the cemetery manager at the Rock Garden Café he and I drove in his car to the cemetery office and personally delivered it to the trustees. The trustees were so shocked that a “straight“ veteran organization would submit an application for a gay memorial that they challenged the identity of the state commander to make sure he (O’Dell) was not an imposter. Then they called the AMVETS national headquarters to determine if a state commander had the authority to sign the application and the national office said yes. The other two veteran memorials at the cemetery just required the signature of a local commander so it seemed odd the trustees wondered if a state commander had the authority to do this.
After receiving affirmation from the AMVETS national headquarters the trustees finally threw in the towel and accepted the fact they had lost. The trustees had no choice but to approve the memorial. The gay community in partnership with non gay allies had prevailed. Perseverance is a virtue in pursuit of a just cause.
After the trustees voted to approve the memorial the cemetery manager confided in Charlie Sharples that three of the five trustees were adamantly opposed to a memorial from gay veterans. I do not hold a grudge against the trustees or their counsel. A short time later AMVETS Post 66 nominated the cemetery counsel for Public Lawyer of the Year to the California Bar Association.
In 2001 the importance of the gay memorial was profound because a survey found only a handful of memorials, statues or public art in America that openly presents a positive image of gays. Over 300 people attended the dedication ceremony in May 2001. Newspapers in other cities like the Chicago Tribune have sent their photographers to the memorial and written feature stories. Rep. Mary Bono-Mack told me at the cemetery she liked the memorial. Her chief of staff Frank Cullen said pictures of him posing with gays at the memorial could not be released to the public or appear on the Internet. A few years ago I testified before the state legislature in support of a bill that would have created a commission to designate veteran memorials as state landmarks. The bill’s author State Senator Christine Kehoe felt a commission would designate the Cathedral City memorial as the official State of California LGBT Veteran’s Memorial. The bill passed the Assembly and Senate but was vetoed by the Governor. The Governor did send a proclamation for the 5th anniversary of the memorial in 2006. The memorial has been on a list of veteran memorials in the state by the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
I am Catholic and the priest at St. Louis Church in Cathedral City would not bless the memorial. I wrote to the Bishop and said the souls of LGBT who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect the cherished freedoms we hold dear and enjoy today deserve our gratitude and our prayers. The Diocese sent me a congratulatory letter.
Late Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich inspired me so much that when I die I will be buried across the row from Matlovich at Congressional Cemetery. Both of us won important legal cases against the Pentagon. Matlovich was acutely aware that “straights” have concealed or downplayed that important people have been gay. The Catholic Church avoids the fact that Michelangelo who painted the Sistine Chapel was gay. Now the Vatican is trying to deny the obvious fact that the newest Saint John Henry Newman was gay. Matlovich stressed the importance of engraving your name and that you were a queer on your headstone or memorials so “straights” cannot lie about you in the future. The Gay Veteran’s Memorial does not lure a “straight” child to choose to become gay. It does teach that gays can do heroic things and die for their country. And since our country asks gays to give all they have including their life for our nation it makes you realize that the least our nation could do in gratitude is enable them to serve openly. The memorial was created by RAUSCH BROTHERS MONUMENT COMPANY – BIG STONE CITY SOUTH DAKOTA. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) approved that their logo could be on the memorial. This is the Department of Defense eagle with a pink triangle. The stone is the same as Tom Swan’s headstone at Congressional Cemetery.
The memorial has become a gathering place to remember and honor the lives of people who died for our freedom but were enslaved by prejudice so they were forced to lie about their sexual orientation. Some of the gay brave military service members who died had no one at their funeral because they could not tell the military their spouse was a homosexual. Fifty or one hundred years from now people will visit America’s first gay veteran’s memorial and be amazed and bewildered it was ever so controversial and difficult to accomplish.
The LGBT community in the Coachella Valley can be proud we have this memorial. It is important that we remember those who persevered until the memorial was finally dedicated. Over the years thousands if not millions of LGBT have struggled and some died so we could achieve the freedom and equality “straight” people receive at birth and take for granted. There have been so many gut-wrenching setbacks during our struggle. So you need to attend this May 7 celebration because triumphs are rare and our conscious thought needs joy and hope. May 7, 2001 will be a happy day for LGBT so come help us celebrate.
10th Anniversary Committee Members
Tom Swann, Chair
Two events were held on May 7, 201 for the 10th anniversary. Desert Winds Freedom Band played at the cemetery. A special letter was read from President Obama. There were letters from the Governor, Rep. Mary Bono-Mack as well as a resolution from State senator Kehoe. The Desert Sun gave a color picture and good story. A luncheon was held at Leon’s Bar and Grill Nortyh that attracted over 100 people. Guest speakers were Dorothy Clausen and Danny Ingram. Award winners were Wayne Patterson, Sonja Marchand and the Alexander Hamilton Post 448
When the memorial was dedicated we sold paperweights made from the same rock as the memorial. We are presently working on a commemorative challenge coin for the memorial.