As long as I live, I'll never forget my dad's reaction when I told him that Congress had voted to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." When I called him with the news, my dad, an older black man, a Vietnam vet, and a Christian, choked back tears of relief that this discriminatory policy was coming to an end. Ever since DADT was certified for repeal two weeks ago -- the same week I lost my father -- I haven't been able to stop thinking about that day and about pinwheels.
My dad was one of those people whose experience with racism made him a fierce defender of marginalized communities. He worked in social justice programs my entire life, creating a county program to provide resources for homeless populations, and later advocating on behalf of mental health patients who could not speak for themselves. He was a towering man of faith, who chose to focus on the "compassion for the least among us" passages in the Bible over those that some cynically use to justify the denial of equal rights to others.
When he and I talked about the military's ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual people serving openly, he described it as an embarrassment to the armed forces that couldn't be justified, and easily dismissed the idea that it was meant to protect "unit cohesion." His response was always the same: "They used to say the same thing about me."
I remember one conversation about the fact that society seems doomed to repeat the same circle of discrimination against new groups. He responded that if each generation could apply the lessons it learned to make sure more people are treated equally, the cycle would still repeat, but at least fewer people would be left out each time. Instead of a circle, he believed that justice operated more like a pinwheel that spiraled out with each progression so that the next circle is always bigger than the last.
This month marks the 63rd anniversary of racial integration of the military. On July 26, 1948 President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the armed forces. And ten years later, because of that order, my dad joined the U.S. Navy. Just a few days before that anniversary, President Barack Obama signed the certification of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly. The poetic symmetry of the nation's first black commander-in-chief ordering the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" illustrated perfectly my dad's sense of pinwheel justice.
My father was in the Navy when the U.S. entered Vietnam. He used to tell my sister and me stories about the training camp they had to attend to prepare them for what would happen if they were taken as prisoners of war. For three weeks they were tormented by superior officers pretending to be the enemy. They were subjected to the type of psychological and physical torture they could expect if they were captured. One of the methods of torment the superior officers used was to use racial slurs to refer to my dad and the other black members in the camp.
Some of these men had previously used the very same slurs without objection from the other white solders. But when those same men, now considered the "enemy" used such language, the white soldiers lashed back, standing up for my dad and the other black members of the unit. My dad wasn't surprised. "These people are leaving their homes, traveling around the world, and fighting for their lives," my dad explained. "Their biggest adjustment wasn't going to be two black guys."
My dad returned from the Vietnam War with significant health problems as a result of his time there. Ultimately, he died from a disease he developed because of his exposure to Agent Orange, and even as it became clear to him that the disease would cost him his life, he remained incredibly proud of his service. And this was despite the fact that he fought at a time that he still wasn't afforded equal rights at home. Everything I know about service to country is influenced by my understanding of that sacrifice. It's the reason I fight the battles that I do today. It seems he had a point about the pinwheel of justice.
My dad died on July 20, 2011, two days before President Obama signed the certification to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but I like to think he didn't need to see this final step in the end of DADT because he knew all along that our armed services and unit cohesion will survive and thrive with the inclusion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members serving their country proudly, and openly.
He knew the pinwheel would work its magic.