A number of anecdotes, both funny and moving, were relayed to me last night at the one-year anniversary celebration of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." The gala, thrown by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), OutServe, and the Interbank Roundtable Committee (IRC) on the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York City, honored Admiral Mike Mullen for his role in dismantling DADT.
Host Barbara Walters, the ABC News legend, had nothing but the highest praise for Mullen when she took the stage to address the crowd of over 1,000. "Tonight is the first time in American history that you have a chance to stand before the admiral, the joint chief of staff, and serve," she said, her rousing speech punctuated by cheers from the gay veterans and allies in the audience.
Walters commending Mullen on testifying before Congress that "gay men and women in the armed services should not have to lie." She continued: "And that testimony is what helped the chairman decide in favor of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell."
Walters was at times happily interrupted by the cocktail-hour out-and-proud crowd. "Tonight as gay and lesbian servicemembers, not only can you be open and honest about who you are, but you can also--" At this, someone let out a big "whoop!" drowning out her words. "Well, you can also do that. Let's all do it!" So everyone cheered.
Her appearance was brief, as she plugged a project of her own in the opening of her remarks: "I have a two-hour television special on tonight that I have been working on for months. I have 10 producers sitting in my living room, saying, 'Come home, come home, and we'll watch it together.' But there is no place that I would rather be than here."
As she left after her seven-minute speech, she told the crowd to watch the special. "If you watch it, I'll have Nielsen call you," she joked.
Admiral Mullen also gave a talk to the crowd, which included VIPs like New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Law & Order's Tamara Tunie, MSNBC news anchor Thomas Roberts, and the Village People's Randy Jones.
The very humble Mullen said in his speech that he is loath to accept honors or awards for fighting DADT, and revealed a little funny thing that Joe Lieberman said to him on the stage as the bill was signed:
From my perspective, I get far too much credit for standing up for the values that have been with me throughout [my life] and with us in our profession for my entire professional life... In fact I was on the stage with [some of the people gathered here tonight] when the president signed the bill. And there were a couple things that you probably didn't see happen. One that you did was that I got two standing ovations next to the president. That's not a great place to be [laughs from the crowd] no matter how generous the president of the United States is, and he is and he was incredibly gracious. And after it was over, Joe Lieberman, who was standing there, turned to me, and he says, "Gee, Mike, I guess you didn't think you'd see the day when you were the most popular guy in gay America." That, too, had not been on my list.
Sounds more Joe Biden than Joe Lieberman, but hey, Democratic Senators from Connecticut can have their days, too, right?
Mullen was quick to turn the spotlight back onto the servicemembers:
What we really celebrate tonight are all of you troops, who are serving now, who have served before, and who fought the fight, quite frankly, over a long period of time. History and coincidence, lots of things came together so that this law could change. In fact, I was overseas on a trip with the USO [when the DADT repeal was about to happen], and when I left town that Saturday or Sunday, the chances of this [repeal] happening, I thought, were zero. It was literally on a plane coming back over the Atlantic where I was told that the bill had passed. It was stunning to me that they passed such a quick reversal. But it was the right thing to do. It stands for who we are. Quite frankly, we can now move on. I am delighted to report that, in all the feedback I get, from the fleet, from the field, and in the air, is it's a non-issue out there. As many of you had told me it would be, and as I believed it would be. I want to thank you for your support, for your service, and actually for your patience, so that we could actually get it done inside the system that we signed up for. In the end, we resolved the matter, and it was spectacular. From my perspective, it's all about you. It's not about us.
I also got the chance to talk to camp legend Randy Jones, the infamous cowboy of the Village People. Here's what the one-year anniversary of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" means to him:
I've done a couple of USO specials with Bob Hope back in '79 and '80 here on the Intrepid. I shot a video for "In the Navy" on another boat. I was made an honorary seaman for the day, with all the rights and privileges and none of the duties or responsibilities. We were given the boat for 24 hours. We had 200 servicemen and women in white, and 200 in dress blues. And as Bob Hope said once, when we were shooting one of the USO specials on this ship, "Don't worry, don't worry," because people got a little nervous about the Village People doing "In the Navy" on the boat. People were swirling around all kinds of rumors, like, "Some of them might be gay." Well, guess what, I was! But he came up with a very witty quip where he said, "Y'all have nothin' to worry about. They're not spending the night on the ship.' "
Tamara Tunie, who plays a medical examiner on Law & Order: SVU, said when asked what she thought the repeal of DADT meant for her, "I think it means a great deal to everybody in this country, whether they are aware of it or not. Of course, it doesn't affect me personally, but I'm a great supporter of our troops, and anything that unites our troops and helps them to perform their jobs better is a good thing. Having to live a secret life is never a good thing."
And what if Romney gets elected? Would he roll back gay-rights reforms? "He's not going to get elected," declared Tunie firmly. "End of story. In fact, you can end the article with that!"
Well, that makes my job easy, at least.
All photos courtesy of TJ Sengel Photography.