More than 50 people showed their support for LGBT veterans in the City Hall courtyard at a rally Thursday. The city’s Office of LGBT Affairs hosted the demonstration one week after President Donald Trump tweeted his intent to ban transgender people from serving in the military.
Director of LGBT Affairs Amber Hikes said the purpose of the event was to send a message that “government-sanctioned discrimination has absolutely no place” in Philadelphia or in the country.
“We are here for one purpose only and that’s to wrap our loving arms around our trans brothers, sisters and siblings,” Hikes said. “So I ask that we take the time to lift each other up, show all the love that we can and listen to the voices of our service-members and our veterans. Today, we need to make sure that love is louder than hate.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said Trump’s tweets were a targeted attack on trans service-members and commended the Coast Guard and the Pentagon would for continuing to allow their service. He added that Philadelphia would “not stand for government-sanctioned bigotry and blatant transphobia.”
Kenney said he was eight-years-old in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and “it seemed the world was coming to an end. However, he said the country “got through that” despite obstacles.
“We’ll get through this and we’ll get through this presidency, whether it’s four years or shorter — hopefully,” Kenney said to laughs from the audience. “And we’ll be better off for it and we will understand our liberty is precious and it applies to every single American and every person who lives in our country. Thank you to all LGBTQ veterans and thanks to all veterans for their desire to serve our country and serve the people in this country.”
Getting involved in the fight
Greg Seaney-Ariano, a Navy vet, noted a few resources to get involved with the fight for equality. This included OutServe-SLDN, an LGBT organization offering legal services and advocacy for LGBT military members. Seaney-Ariano encouraged individuals to contact the organization’s legal department to become a plaintiff in a potential lawsuit regarding transgender service.
He also noted the Facebook group, OutServe - SLDN Delaware Valley, where individuals can mobilize and make announcements, and the OutServe-SLDN's 2017 LGBT Military Community Conference Oct. 19-21 in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Remolia Simpson, who served six years in the U.S. Army, spoke about My Brother’s House. Simpson, who is gay, is the executive director of the residential housing and faith-based counseling facility. She said she is partnering with the city to open My Brother’s House “first LGBTQ house for homeless vets.” She has been talking to people in the business district and receiving guidance from the Mayor’s office and the Sheriff’s department.
“If anyone is interested in learning more, please go to mbhouse.org and you’ll get more information,” Simpson said. “Please contact me if you can guide me [if you are] interested in helping with anything.”
Aronda Smith-Benson, a lesbian U.S. Army veteran who served in Desert Storm, said her goal was to make sure everyone was standing together to build a coalition to “make sure every veteran is treated accordingly [and] every service-member is treated accordingly.” She added that she will open a women veterans center in South Philadelphia.
“My reasoning for opening a women’s veterans’ center is because there was a void. Something was missing. That’s what we have to do, fill a void. Oftentimes, we can’t wait on government. Government is a process. It takes time. So we have to make sure we’re moving along and we’ll continue to march for the things we believe in and the things we should be supporting.”
Dante Austin, who helped organized the event along with the Office of LGBT Affairs, also spoke on his experiences as a gay member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard from 2009-2016.
“I know how hard it was for me being gay, and being gay and being trans in this country are very different,” Austin said. “It’s a whole different kind of struggle. So I commend you on your service. But more importantly, you’re not just fighting wars overseas. You’re fighting wars in this country every single day. You’re fighting a war on poverty. You’re fighting a war on homelessness. You’re fighting a war on bathroom bills. That’s the kind of stuff that they’re fighting for in this country.”
Former Army Captain Sue Fulton spoke as president of SPARTA, an LGBT group advocating for transgender military service. She noted that she spoke with transgender servicemembers who woke up to Trump’s tweets last week. She said they are concerned and alarmed “but they are not afraid.”
“They have raised their right hand,” Fulton said. “They have sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies — foreign and domestic. They have put their lives on the line to stay true to that mission. They defend our freedoms every single day. They defend the freedoms of the people who hate them. They defend the freedoms of the people who would fire them. And they are courageously living their lives as their true selves with integrity. They are the bravest people I know.”
Fulton introduced Evelyn Rhynedance, an active-duty transgender woman in the Special Forces.
“I’m grateful for the privilege that I have had to serve with the best soldiers in the world,” Rhynedance said. “We’ve been able to do some amazing things in some remarkable places. We were able to do that because we all raised our hands and we all came together for a reason. There are thousands of people like me who are going to keep raising our hands and doing those things.”
The crowd chanted “Thank you” for Rhynedance’s service.