Alex Blaze

Gay military billboard destroyed in Memphis

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 28, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Don't Ask Don't Tell, Marine Corps, Memphis, soldier, Tennessee

We post often about pro-gay billboards here at Bilerico, both because Indianapolis had a rash of them a few years ago, and because they're one of the few prominent examples of gay people getting out of our little groups and taking our arguments to the people, without a ballot initiative forcing us to. These billboards cause conversation and confront people who would never see a pro-gay message with often religious pleas to be OK with the gay.

The Memphis GLCC set up five, three with overtly religious messages (which are usually the ones that get the fundies riled up), one specifically about marriage, one with a soldier, and one with some kind-looking allies. The soldier one got defaced, though. More than defaced, completely destroyed. Here's what it looked like:


People are saying that it's because of the pro-gay message in the billboard, which is possible. But what does it say about our discourse when we can't see the nationalistic, exceptionalist, and downright violent message in this billboard, or even consider the possibility that someone else had a problem with it?

The Memphis GLCC explains the billboard:

Although we are saddened by yesterday's hateful expression of intolerance, we are proud of the local Memphian that chose to be the face on the billboard. He eagerly served our country and was forced out of the military under the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy. The billboard featured him as a proud marine and displayed his brave message "I'm gay and I protected your freedom." This bravery was met with disrespect.

"Protecting our freedom" my ass. That argument is used to short-circuit any discussion of the military and to make you think, contrary to all evidence, that if you're still breathing and talking, then every military action is justified.

That isn't hyperbole. Every time people protest or disagree with an invasion or escalation of military conflict, a whole array of silencing techniques are used to keep dissent down. Whether its violent protest suppression, exclusion of anti-war viewpoints from major media as not sufficiently serious or loyal to the US, or hating the troops (because of course enlisted men and women plan which wars America goes into! It makes so much sense), the goal of a significant number of powerful Americans is to make it impossible to even thoroughly discuss a call to war.

Many of our elected and appointed leaders are blood-thirsty chicken-hawks who think they can prove their meddle by getting (other people) into war after war. We're in Iraq and Afghanistan now, overstretched in both, tired of these long wars, but what are our leaders discussing? Escalating and prolonging the occupation of Afghanistan and starting a war with Iran, based on the same kind of intelligence that led us into Iraq. As Glenn Greenwald documents, the evidence that Iran will have a nuclear weapon soon just isn't there, but the media is back to photocopying the administration's stories about how dangerous Iran is and several Senators (including my own Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana) are already saying that we need to take military action against Iran, either to cripple their economy (and make people starve) or to destroy military targets (that we're not sure exist).

And the way we talk about all this is how we get into these conflicts in the first place. America's a special place, according to the pro-war mythology, a country designated by God to lead the world. Everything we do in terms of foreign policy is good because it advances our interests, and our interests are always in the best interest of everyone on the planet. By definition, American military actions are good, and therefore we can do anything, and it's good.

That's because all military actions are about protecting people's freedom. We're in Iraq, we were told, to protect Americans' freedom (because Saddam had WMD's and would have taken over the US) and Iraqis' freedom (because Saddam was a terrible dictator, and we'd be able to establish a functioning democracy there in under six months). If you objected to the war, well, then, obviously you just don't believe in protecting people's freedom, you freedom-hating bastard.

I actually happen to hang out with Americans in the military out here from time to time, who are usually nice people who do their jobs and take orders. This isn't about them - some even believe that what they're doing is protecting Americans' freedom (and some of them actually are, since the military doesn't only occupy other nations for their resources).

I got into an interesting discussion with an Air Force guy in which I mentioned the fact that it's now estimated that over a million Iraqis are dead because of America's occupation of that country (don't ask how we got there). He responded that the fact that I have the freedom of speech to say that is only because the military prevented someone like Saddam Hussein from taking it away, to which I responded that while there are quite a few threats to free speech back in America, Saddam Hussein taking over the US and repealing the First Amendment was never remotely possible, and when the military starts fighting against threats to freedom of speech that have actually manifested themselves in the US (police preemptively arresting protesters or terrorist watch lists that always seem to focus on political dissidents instead of actual terrorists, for example), then I might have some respect for his civil libertarianism. Until then, I'll pay my dues to the ACLU because they're actually working to keep speech free.

The "protect your freedom" argument is used so promiscuously it's impossible to take seriously. It is part-and-parcel with the general repugnance many Americans have with discussing wars before we get into them.

The only way to fight against it is to say, "No, the military does just not protect people's freedom. If they were only trying to do that, their budget could be a lot smaller, and they would have far fewer bases all over the world. Their goals are numerous, but the main one is to, through funneling money into no-bid contracts and opening up markets overseas, to keep money flowing to America's rich." As much as people like to say the military protects people's freedom, if you go through all their current operations and cut out all the ones that don't, there wouldn't be much left. People can't claim that the military is basically good, or that being in the military makes one good, because the military "protects our freedom."

"Protecting our freedom" is, quite simply, illogical, and that's the goal. If you don't think too much about it, it makes sense. It becomes a mantra, and we repeat it over and over as the US looks for more enemies out there, more hobgoblins to attack to justify the military's budget and to satiate the constant state of fear we're being told to live in. It's purpose is the exact opposite of an argument; instead of making people think more about a given topic, it's to make people think less and go along with other people's selfish interests.

"I'm gay and I protected your freedom." You don't have to be homophobic to think that that message is just toxic. And you don't have to be anti-military to see that there are many military actions that aren't justified, that aren't at all related to protecting Americans' freedom. Perhaps if the billboard said "I'm gay and I protected your freedom, among other things," it'd at least be more accurate, although that would probably kill the pro-gay message.

And you don't have to buy the argument that the message is toxic to at least see that there might be people out there who think it is. But we can't even stop and think that maybe, after those hundreds of thousands of people protested worldwide against the war in Iraq, after the over one million lives were lost in that country, after all the resources that were squandered to make some chicken hawks feel like real men and some defense contractors very rich, and after all the opposition to these horrors was squashed with calls to "support the troops," that maybe having a message that brings that all back so nonchalantly, so dismissively, would get someone riled up.

This is not to say that DADT is a good policy. On the contrary. These folks sign a contract and go to work, and firing them from their job because of their sexuality is just as wrong as it would be in any other job. I'm wary of the military being an option of last resort for communities that don't have many resources, as unemployment for those under 24 reaches 52%. It's not really an all-volunteer military if you starve, are left without housing, and can't access medical care if you don't join. But it's not like forcing people to stay in the closet, on top of everything else, is going to do anything other than increase suffering.

Sure, the person who vandalized the billboard may have been homophobic. We don't know since we don't even know who did it. And considering how much more acceptable it is to be homophobic in the US than it is to question the military (thanks, in part, to folks who push the "protecting our freedom" argument), more likely than not the billboard was defaced because of the pro-gay part of the message.

But, for all we know, the vandal may have just been a big Patti Labelle fan.


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While I agree that a dislike for the military or for gays (or even for gays in the military) might have been the motivation behind this act of vandalism, I think it's most likely a homophobic incident. There are countless other "support the troops" billboards and symbolic gestures, very few of which end up being vandalized like this one. I think that has more to do with the fact that it's socially acceptable to be publicly homophobic while, as you pointed out, it's less-so to be publicly anti-war or anti-military.

Although I feel your criticism of the military and those who weild it power is a bit off base, I understand your viewpoint and how, using recent military action as a foundation for your argument, you would reach such a conclusion.

I would only ask you to remember one thing: that the defense of a nation occasionally falls to offensive action. Although it's very easy to look backwards and see where such action was unfounded, it is not necessarily that easy looking forward. The purpose of the military is to protect Americans and American interests when diplomatic and economic methods are ineffective. Sometimes those interests aren't of significance to you, but given America's position in the global community they become our national interests because we possess the means and power to influence them.

You seem to try very hard to insulate yourself from criticism by saying, "it's not the troops' fault" or "they didn't have a choice". As members of the military, a criticism against the institution will be taken personally, especially when it comes in this cryptic, yet judgmental form. It's the same "hate the sin, not the sinner" attitude that allows the religious right to criticize homosexuality and gay rights while claiming not to hate gays.

Just remember that while you might not feel like the military has protecting your freedom as its main goal, those in the military believe they are doing just that. And they deserve a certain amount of respect for being willing to lay their lives on the line in that duty. You should be particularly respectful, because although they may be offended by your attitude, they'll continue to do whatever they do--protecting among other things--in spite of it.

This post is so thoroughly out-of-line that I don't want to be sucked into commenting on it at length.

Are you arguing that World War II was also an unjustified war? The US tried to stay out of that one as long as possible, until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. What is a country supposed to do after a direct attack? (And I assume you know the status that homosexuals had under Hilter.)

Alex, if you think this country doesn't need to be defended at a physical level, then I guess you must have slept through what happened on September 11, 2001.

The billboard was totally right on --- but its message is one of those that you aren't allowed to say in this country. (To a right-winger, this billboard is very "politically incorrect".) And of course, the only way to change that is to dare to say it, again and again and again.

Thanks for writing this, Alex. I especially liked: "what does it say about our discourse when we can't see the nationalistic, exceptionalist, and downright violent message in this billboard, or even consider the possibility that someone else had a problem with it?"

It's a much needed insertion into the DADT commentary which implicitly silences anti-war queers and straights alike by drumming up an uncritical form of patriotism. Great ending, btw!

Thanks for sharing this.

I am an anti-war activist. I was brutalized by police while peacefully protesting the war. I've had internal organs rupture, and this was worse. It was more than four years ago, and I still have PTSD.

Every few days, I'm bombarded with ads glorifying the police and glorifying the military. When I mention my experiences, I am often accused of bringing it on myself.

I see a culture of militarism, machismo, glorifying the powerful, scorning the powerless, and blaming the victims everywhere. That's destroying people's lives. Rape culture, police brutality culture, and war culture all reinforce each other.

Writing this; sharing your thoughts.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 29, 2009 12:23 AM

Wow, Alex, excellent post! Thank you for writing it.

It's demoralizing how militarized our society has become. Instead of objecting, however, brainwashed American citizens, like A.J., pay homage to everything military. The cross-over between the military and civilian society is accelerating. Did you see they used a weapon, the "sonic canon," developed for military use in warfare against people exercising their First Amendment right to assemble and demonstrate in Pittsburgh?! The WH now has the legal power to deploy American troops against citizens in our cities: and according to witnesses, they did, in Minneapolis during the GOP convention. So private corporations provide soldiers to fight our wars, while the military industrial complex provides weapons for civilian law enforcement agencies and soldiers to crack anti-war demonstrators' heads. While the Dick Cheneys and Erik Princes of the world rake in fortunes.

What a crock, the military protects our rights.

Instead of objecting, however, brainwashed American citizens, like A.J., pay homage to everything military.

Brynn, it is fine if you disagree with me. But I would appreciate it if you would not distort, or deliberately exaggerate, what I say.

I do not "pay homage to everything military," not by a long shot. But I do realize that in some, rather common situations, military responses, and sometimes very large military responses, are a necessary evil. My example was WW-II --- and you proceeded to label me as "brainwashed" instead of explaining what you think the USA response to Pearl Harbor should have been. What could we have done other than enter into the fight against the Axis powers? Perhaps we should have asked the Japanese to bomb Los Angeles, too?

I also do not discourage anti-war views or protests, in general. Some wars deserve to be supported, and some deserve to be protested.

What a crock, the military protects our rights.

I do expect, however, Brynn, that you and I are now having an exchange that would not have been allowed had Hilter been victorious, unless maybe you and I were talking face-to-face instead a concentration camp. Think about it.

Sorry for my typo: I meant to write "inside a concentration camp."

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 29, 2009 7:21 AM

Like AJ I will not comment on this at length or even read comments after mine.

1. Iran shot off it's first long distance missile today. Do you think they shot it off to demonstrate how peaceful their intentions are?

2. The military cannot protect freedom of speech, but courts can and your line of reasoning is a disservice to the ACLU.

3. We do have a far too far flung military. Much of it is the result of treaties that need renegotiation. We need the will to do just that, but meanwhile do we just pull out of Korea with her missile testing?

4. Now on the one hand "we are too militaristic" but we bemoan the genocides in Africa, Tibet, Burma and other beauty spots around the globe as somehow our responsibility to address. If we react and try to end these genocides we are being colonial imperialists and if we do not react we are being greedy and self absorbed.

5. If we do not support our troops in protecting our security there will be more issues of narco terrorism on our Mexican border. What you have seen to this point is nothing. We can support the troops (who you somehow dismiss as stooges or disadvantaged victims of the capitalist system) while we work to change policies of government that allow the errors to happen.

There has already been a call to reinforce our mission in Afghanistan which I hope we heed in the most modest terms as we disengage from the error of Iraq. Most Americans are too interested in television drek to care.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 29, 2009 1:53 PM

"Our Mexican border"?

Aren't you living in the Far East, Robert?

Not that you plan to read this comment, as you've already made up your mind about it all.

Robert is an American citizen living in Thailand. As an American citizen he has every right to use the word "our" regarding any general characteristic of the USA, including its Mexican border.

Need more evidence, Alex?

Even with feeling of antipathy toward the military in a queer audience there also exists a fervor for aggression with little consideration for historical repercussion let alone a complete lack of attention paid to the democracy destroying effects of the military industrial complex on our lives.

And this desecration of ad space (hardly a heart string puller for me, but still a specific act of vandalism that does not go unnoticed) in Memphis of all places is evidence to me of a militaristic fervor that is guided by homophobia. A near perfect storm of justification enabled the act.

Even with queer resistance to War Inc there doesn't exist a strong enough repugnance to the military that would inspire an act like this vandalism - especially in Memphis.