Joyce Arnold is a liberal Independent activist whose column “Queer Talk” appears regularly on Saturdays, and occasionally on other days of the week.
On this past Saturday, CNN ran a story under the headline: “Soldier leaves legacy much larger than ‘he was gay.’” It was widely picked up by blogs and other media, and so very likely, you’ve seen it. But just in case you haven’t, and because it is so powerful, I decided to write about it here, on this July 4.
Although there are many differences, the story of Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, and of his parents, Lorie and Jeff Wilfahrt, reminds me of meeting the mother and step-father of Pfc. Barry Winchell — Pat and Wally Kutteles, who lived in Kansas City — at the Nashville Pride Festival. Cpl. Wilfahrt is believed to be the first gay servicemember killed in the Iraq / Afghanistan wars since Obama signed the repeal of DADT, which continues to be enforced as the process plays itself out – as of today, according to SLDN, it’s been 194 days since Obama signed the repeal. The president recently said it will be “weeks, not months,” when the repeal process will be completed.
Pfc. Winchell was murdered, while he slept, by a fellow soldier who struck him in the head with a baseball bat. Winchell did not identify as gay, as Wilfahrt did. But he dated Calpernia Addams, a transsexual (her preferred term) who worked as a nightclub performer in Nashville, about 50 miles south of Ft. Campbell, where Winchell was stationed. When that relationship was discovered by fellow soldiers at Ft. Campbell, and with DADT recently implemented, the “faggot” label was applied, and harassment became routine. After his murder, his mother and step-father became activists, determined to see DADT repealed.
They were fairly new to the activism world, much less the LGBT world, when they came to the first Nashville Pride Festival following their son’s death on July 6, 1999. Later, Pat told Michael Rowe
When I found out what happened to Barry, and why – that it was a hate crime – I went after the military… . If we don’t fight against hate crimes, and for those people who are targeted, I feel as if we’re letting Barry down.
Twelve years later, Lorie and Jeff Wilfahrt attended their first Pride parade in Minneapolis – St. Paul, a few months after their son’s death in February of this year. From the CNN story (and I strongly encourage you read the whole piece, if you haven’t already):
The red Toyota Corolla eases through the streets of downtown Minneapolis. The Wilfahrts are entering a part of their son’s world that was distant to them. They’re headed from their home in suburban Rosemount to the Twin Cities Gay Pride Parade, an annual event their son loved.
‘It’s new for us,’ Lorie says .
According to the CNN story, Andrew had come out to his parents at 16. He knew, in high school, what it felt like to be called “fag.” Joining the army at 29, Andrew knew, of course, as have so many other lesbian and gay people, that he was joining under DADT. He wanted to serve.
Andrew was so well-liked his comrades named a combat outpost for the soldier with the infectious smile. COP Wilfahrt sits 6 kilometers from Kandahar. To his buddies, it is not named for a gay soldier, but for one who fought with valor.
‘Mom, everyone knows. Nobody cares,’ he told his mother in their final conversation, a phone call from Afghanistan on Thanksgiving.
And even though there are many differences, like Pat and Wally Kutteles, Lorie and Jeff Wilfahrt became activists for LGBT rights.
Andrew fought for his nation in a foreign land. His parents’ war is being waged in their home state of Minnesota. To them, it’s about defending the Constitution … .
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. …
On a recent spring day, the couple stood outside the (state) Capitol while lawmakers inside prepared to debate marriage. The legislators voted, largely along party lines, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for November 2012 to define marriage as solely between a man and woman. …
During that debate, “Republican Rep. John Kriesel, who lost his legs while serving in Iraq, sent Andrew’s photo around the floor …,” saying, “I cannot look at this family and look at this picture and say, ‘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.’”
Not long after, the day of the Twin cities Pride Festival arrives.
On this day, in the grandstands of the pride parade, the Wilfahrts will celebrate their son’s identity as both a gay man and a soldier. It’s the type of event that would stun Bachmann and Pawlenty: More than 100,000 gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and straights gathered in their home state … .
Soon, a float goes by carrying two poster-sized photographs of Andrew in Army camo. ‘That’s our boy!’ Jeff says.
He and Lorie embrace. Their heads tilt toward the ground, two exhausted parents missing their son.
Their son was a soldier. Their son was gay. Most importantly, of course, he was just their son, a man who happened to be gay, who chose to be a soldier. And like other parents before them, Lorie and Jeff honor their child by becoming activist for equality.