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Parents of Fallen Gay Patriot to Minnesota Voters: Don’t Forget Our Son’s Sacrifice

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 4, 2011
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When voters in Minnesota go to the ballot box next year and cast their ballots on the civil rights of their gay and lesbian fellow citizens, the parents of a fallen gay patriot hope that they remember their son, killed in action in Kandahar last February, reported British newspaper the Daily Mail on July 4.

31-year-old Andrew Wilfahrt was from Minnesota. He was as openly gay as he could be in the military: His fellow troops knew, and didn’t care. He was the first servicemember known to be gay who was killed following President Obama’s signing of a bill to repeal the anti-gay law that imposes the penalty of discharge from the service on GLTB troops who do not keep the truth about their sexuality a closely guarded secret.

That law, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT), was repealed late last year. It remains in effect, however, until 60 days after the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Secretary all certify that the U.S. military is ready for full integration.

That certification is not expected until mid-summer or later.

In high school, Andrew Wilfahrt stood up in the face of anti-gay bullying from schoolmates, a July 2 CNN article reported.

He was also a peace activist. But at age 29, Wilfahrt signed up for military service in the Army. Even before boot camp, he subjected himself to a regimen of physical training -- part of which was meant to eradicate overt signs that he was gay. Wilfahrt practiced a different walk and a deeper, more "masculine" voice, the CNN article reported, knowing that as a gay man he could be tossed out of the military: Not for his conduct, but rather simply for being who he was.

But the exercises in acting heterosexual weren’t needed, as it turned out. Wilfahrt scored perfectly on his Army aptitude test; he impressed his superiors; he was admired and trusted by his peers, many of whom came to know that he was gay, but didn’t care.

When Wilfahrt was killed by an IED, his father wanted to make sure that there was no cover-up going on. As the CNN article put it, "He wanted to know for sure that this wasn’t a behind-the-shed killing of the gay guy."

In fact, Wilfahrt’s death was in the line of duty, as the deaths of so many other brave Americans in uniform have been. Now his parents hope that voters in their state will factor their son’s willingness to fight and die for his country when they weigh in on the freedoms of gay and lesbian families next year.

Minnesota voters will face a ballot initiative to write anti-gay language into the state’s bedrock law by changing the constitution to say that marriage will be denied to all except for heterosexual couples.

The campaign to pass the initiative is expected to be rough and divisive, with anti-gay ads designed to appeal to voters’ distrust of sexual minorities with claims that do not always represent the facts.

Whatever claims anti-gay activists may toss at voters, this much is true: Andrew Wilfahrt served with such distinction that after his death, his fellow servicemembers named a combat outpost near Kandahar in his honor.

Equality advocates note that in recent years, social acceptance of GLBTs and their families has risen dramatically. A recent poll showed that for the first time ever, a slim majority of American voters favor same-sex marriage for gay and lesbian families that wish to avail themselves of the legal protections and obligations that marriage entails. Equality advocates are hopeful that Minnesotans will make history by rejecting the anti-gay ballot initiative.

But if Minnesota follows the historical precedent set by 31 other states, gay and lesbian families there will see marriage snatched beyond their legal grasp for decades, perhaps longer. Their contributions to society -- and even the ultimate sacrifice by gay Minnesotans in uniform like Andrew Wilfahrt -- will be ignored and forgotten in the heat of a campaign designed to obstruct legal parity for families formed by two people of the same gender.

"The Wilfahrts are asking people to remember their son’s service, and to remember his infectious smile," the Mail article said. "They are asking voters in Minnesota to reject a change to the state constitution that would prohibit citizens like Andrew Wilfahrt from marrying the love of their life.

"They say they are ready to take the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if they have to," the article added.

"In a state that has produced GOP presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty -- who have made careers fighting gay marriage -- these parents of an American hero present a major challenge to the establishment," the CNN article noted.

"Andrew never denied his sexuality," the CNN article said. "But like so many, he struggled with what it means to be gay in America."

"I hope my son didn’t die for human beings, for Americans, for Minnesotans who would deny him civil rights," Wilfahrt’s father, Jeff Wilfahrt, told a crowd at the Minnesota State House as state lawmakers mulled allowing the anti-gay initiative to appear on the 2012 ballot.

But the Republican-dominated Minnesota legislature allowed the measure to be slated as a ballot initiative, leaving the rights of a minority once again to the tender mercies of the general public.

The irony is that heterosexual American families may have Wilfahrt and other like him to thank. The CNN article noted that before he signed up, Wilfahrt sought out a gay former Marine to ask for his insight into serving as a gay man.

The veteran, who was identified in the CNN article as Dan, said that Wilfahrt set out his reasons for wanting to sign up. Among them: So that a married father might not have to leave his wife and children and go overseas.

"He wasn’t making a [political] statement" in signing up for military service, Dan told CNN. "He was doing it for everybody else."

Added Dan, "He will forever be my hero because he joined for the right reasons. He was a silent part of the gay community, but it’s just unspeakable how big of an impact he’s had now."

CNN noted that Wilfahrt died unattached, but that had he had a life partner, "the partner wouldn’t have been allowed to escort his body home from Dover Air Force Base, nor would he have received Andrew’s $100,000 death benefit."

Gay troops have been of America’s fighting forces since the Revolutionary War, but they have often had to be careful to conceal their true sexuality. In World War II, soldiers known to be gay were permitted to serve -- but upon the war’s end they were denied the benefits that straight GIs got, as documented in Allan Berube’s seminal 1990 book "Coming Out Under Fire." Moreover, their names were often passed along to civilian police authorities. Being gay automatically made them suspect.

Times and attitudes have shifted, in no small part thanks to the efforts of a generation of gay men who saw service in one of history’s grandest, bloodiest, and most fiercely-fought wars. While many gay veterans of World War II adopted protective heterosexual coloring, others began to speak out.

Theirs has a message that has only slowly permeated America’s consciousness, and its national conscience. But signs of change are all around, spurred on by a greater outspokenness than ever before on the part of gay military heroes. Indeed, the first casualty in the current American action in Iraq war was a gay soldier who lost a leg. His name is Eric Alva. He has become a spokesperson for America’s GLBT servicemembers, patriots who are painted by anti-gay activists as predators with a military fetish, but who have shrugged off such rhetoric to serve their nation.

At least one GOP Minnesota lawmaker took the time to consider what it meant for a young gay man to lay his life on the line for a nation that refuses to view him as equal to heterosexuals. Iraq combat veteran John Kreisel, a Republican state representative, showed his colleagues a photo of Andrew Wilfahrt. He used to be an opponent of legal equality for same-sex families. No longer, CNN reported.

"I cannot look at this family and look at this picture and say, ’You know what, Corporal, you were good enough to fight for your country and give your life, but you were not good enough to marry the person you love,’ " Kreisel said. "I can’t do that."

If voters in Minnesota hear and understand the words of Andrew Wilfahrt’s parents, neither will they.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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