Five years ago I became a Mass Communications Specialist, representing the Navy publicly while struggling with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy privately. Recently I came back to the place that trained me as the keynote speaker for a celebration of the Department of Defense's first official LGBT History Month. It's a story of things coming full-circle and about how much we've achieved as a community.
When I attended the Defense Information School (DINFOS), I knew I was powerless. I could not be honest about who I was. When I came back to speak in front of my alma mater, I decided it was important to reflect on that powerlessness.
Faced with the challenge of addressing a crowd of speechwriters, orators and media relations professionals, I decided to tell them something they already knew:
Speech is power.
Speech isn't just powerful, nor influential or helpful. Speech is power. It is the thing which connects us, which permeates and creates the public sphere. Through speech, LGBT persons can be recognized and can advocate for ourselves. Through speech, we can affirm our equality and wield reason against homophobia and intolerance.
Therefore, it is no mistake that throughout history homophobes and bigots have always targeted our speech first. In looking back at our history, there is no more prominent sign of this dynamic than the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. By destroying our voice, DADT destroyed our very existence. In truth, when we stay silent and in the closet, we are not just destroying ourselves - we are surrendering to the malevolence of anti-LGBT hate.
Speech is power.
My legs were trembling. My old chief from the 7th Fleet, a giant of a man named Palmer Pinckney, stood at the DINFOS "Hall of Heroes" introducing me to a crowd dressed in all the different uniforms of our military. The crowd applauded, and after a few seconds, I got up to the podium and took 20 minutes explaining the importance of coming out and the spoken word in LGBT history.
I decided that if I was going to prove my point, I had to give them an example. In a moment of defiance against the years of silence and abuse I was forced to endure, I finished my speech with the most powerful affirmation of our progress in history I could possibly think of.
I looked out to the crowd and said, "I'm gay. "
And those, my friends, are still very powerful words.
See the video below for the full speech: