Gay activists, for the first time ever, placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier yesterday honoring gays and all other military personnel. The White House intervened to get the activists permission for the ceremony after the Army turned down their request.
"It is with special joy and pain that we recall the multitude of gay men and lesbian women who often died alone, hiding their true selves," read the Rev. Larry J. Uhrig during the brief ceremony yesterday."We rejoice in the faith that they are known to You, who created each of them."
The brief ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was attended by several dozen gay activists and three high-ranking officials from the Department of the Army who carefully scrutinized the prayer before permitting it to be read. Nearly a dozen armed security police officers stood nearby in case of what the cemetery superintendent called "any trouble." There were no disruptions.
"I always win my wars," said Franklin E. Kameny, 55, a longtime Washington gay activist who organized yesterday's wreath-laying ceremony.
"I think it is an obscenity to deny any group the right to honor their own dead," said Kameny, who wore an infantry combat medal from his three years of World War II service on his blue civilian suit.
Kameny led the official party from the Gay Activists Alliance of D.C., which placed a wreath of red and white chrysanthemums in front of the marble tomb. Included in the party was Marie Dias, representing Mayor Marion Barry.
"When the Army denied a permit several weeks ago I was so angry I was willing to have myself arrested or shot by the sentry in order to lay the wreath," Kameny said.
Kameny's first request to Army personnel included his intention to demonstrate support for gay military personnel now in the service, he said.
The permit was denied because the military does not permit known homosexuals in the service, and any demonstration on their behalf would be an attempt to change military policy, according to Lt. Col. Robert Faxon of the office of the secretary of the Army, who visited the National Cemetery yesterday to watch the wreath-laying ceremony.
When the permit was denied, Kameny called White House liaison officer Allison Thomas, whom he had met through political contacts. Thomas declined comment yesterday but a source familiar with her role said she called the secretary of the Army's office "to make sure the [gay] group's rights were being upheld. We do that all the time," the source said.
Kameny shortly afterward made a second request without the intent to demonstrate support for gays in the services, and also filed a civil rights suit in federal court, seeking the permit. The Army notified him last Friday that his group could place the wreath.
Most bystanders yesterday were unaware of the nature of the group placing the wreath. One woman from Indiana read the banner on the wreath, stating "Gay Activist Alliance," and said later. "At first I was kind of shocked, but in America you have the right to express your own opinion."