In his eight years of being a gay activist, especially one focused on overturning the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Denny Meyer has met other activists who are not only veterans, as he is, but the offspring of immigrant parents. And all of them were motivated to join the military for the same reason he did, Meyer said in a phone interview Monday, two days after Congress voted to repeal the policy:
“We each believed in serving the country that gave our family freedom.”
Meyer, a 64-year-old resident of Kew Gardens, Queens, has done his part to help shape the debate over the 17-year-old policy. Eight years ago, he became active in American Veterans for Equal Rights, one of the groups that pushed for this week’s change, forming a New York chapter that he still heads. He is also the organization’s public affairs officer and vice president for veteran affairs.
More recently, in 2005, Meyer created the Gay Military Signal, an online publication that now appears monthly and that covers efforts to achieve equality for gays in the armed forces, a battle that Meyer believes is bound to continue long after gays are allowed to serve openly (www.gaymilitarysignal.com). Read by an estimated 20,000 viewers a month, the publication has interviewed members of Congress, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), as well as gay veterans and soldiers.
For now, though, Meyer is savoring the victory, calling himself “ecstatic.”
“All of us in the forefront of the movement are in shock,” he said, adding that although observers predicted the outcome of last weekend’s vote, neither he nor his colleagues allowed themselves to believe it would happen until it did. An earlier effort to repeal the measure failed less than two weeks beforehand, Meyer noted, and it was revived through a legislative maneuver.
For Meyer, as for others involved in the effort, the outcome couldn’t have been more personal.
The son of German-Jewish refugees, Meyer got his first taste of political activism at the age of 13, when he attended a march on Long Island organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He can no longer recall what the march concerned, but he does remember an angry bystander throwing a rock at him and coming home with a bloody skull, said Meyer, who grew up initially in Washington Heights and, later, in Massapequa, L.I.
His mother reacted angrily when she saw him and asked what possessed him to participate in the march, Meyer recounted. But she calmed down once he provided the answer: “It’s how you raised me.”
“I was raised to never be silent in the face of oppression,” Meyer said. “I was raised to believe that there was nothing more precious than American freedom.” Adding that his family was secular, but always culturally Jewish, Meyer called those beliefs “our religion.”
So strong was Meyer’s patriotism that he found himself repulsed when he began college and noticed that other students “had become confused between objecting to the Vietnam War and objecting to their own country.” Witnessing students burn the American flag “pushed my button as a first-generation American,” he said. “They took their freedom for granted.”
As a result, Meyer left college and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which assigned him to an administrative job and in which he served for four years. Although he was asked to re-enlist, he left because he decided that, as a gay person, “I wanted to live free again. Hiding is tough,” he added, especially for four years.
But his years with the military weren’t over, said Meyer, who landed a job as a civilian administrator for the U.S. Army Reserve and joined one of its units.
In those days, Meyer said, no one spoke of “gay rights,” a term that didn’t exist at the time, and no one had any expectation of equality. “You had to live in silence,” he said. But times changed; Meyer met “the love of my life” in 1973, and he had grown tired of leading a double life.
Since then, Meyer has experienced more than a normal share of personal troubles. His partner died of AIDS in the early 1990s, and he’s gone through two battles with cancer, one of which he wasn’t expected to survive. He also has a heart condition and a painful case of spinal degeneration, which means that he walks with the aid of a cane and is sometimes in such pain that he can’t even move. In fact, the “subtle discrimination” he encountered from the Veterans Administration is one of the factors that led to his involvement with American Veterans for Equal Rights, he said.
But Meyer has gained fulfillment from helping others, and he recalls his days in the military, as both an enlisted petty officer and a civilian, with fondness. He’s especially proud of the respect he earned from superiors, colleagues and the 2,000 people he supervised.
All the same, Meyer said, he knew that if his superiors found out that he was gay, “it would have all disappeared in an instant. I resigned, and I took 10 years of experience, leadership and training with me, and I’m not alone. Thousands of others have left without a word.”
Those are the facts that Meyer hopes will change with this week’s action.