IN THE WEEKS after Sept. 11, evidence of American patriotism was everywhere. U.S. flags signaled unity through car windows, interest in the nation’s volunteer corps soared, and baseball fans defiantly returned to stadiums and sang "God Bless America." But amid national crisis, challenges to a person’s patriotism can come daily.
The story of Michael Kilmer
Military career over
because he's gay,
Seattle man still
dedicated to country
By Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter
Michael Kilmer sees the war against terrorism being waged without him.
For a patriot, there was no better way to serve his country than by dedicating his life to the armed forces. But last summer, the 32-year-old, decorated officer candidate told superiors at Coast Guard headquarters something they didn't want to hear: He's gay. Before long, his military career was over.
Patriotism had been mostly a civics-class discussion topic before Sept. 11. Suddenly, however one defined it, patriotism was everywhere, the banner under which a wounded nation assembled. It was an American flag beaming from a car window. A trip to the Army recruiting station. A public voicing of thoughtful support or dissent.
But it's a weightier issue for someone like Kilmer, whose civil-rights protections aren't fully recognized, whose identity the military won't tolerate.
How do you stand behind a country that doesn't always stand behind you?
Not a problem for Kilmer: He's a guy who still shivers when he hears the national anthem, who remembers that while the Stars and Stripes might symbolize a country that doesn't accept him, it also stands for a country that gave him the freedom to say: "I'm gay. And I'm going to challenge you on this one."
What patriotism really means
Exercising one's democratic rights, particularly when challenged, is the most authentic form of patriotism, says Richard Harwood, director of the Bethesda, Md.-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. "Genuine patriotism," he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor this summer, "flows from a love of nation so deep that one is willing to search for what is good and right, especially when the path is hard, and when issues get confusing or tough or feel downright uncomfortable."
For gays and lesbians, patriotism also can mean seeking strength in democratic ideals despite feeling like second-class citizens. That's been true for people like Capitol Hill's Ian and Steve Dillon-Gehrig, and for Jaci Oseguera, director of Seattle's Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Community Center.
In the days after Sept. 11, the Dillon-Gehrigs, who legally joined their names in recognition of a relationship that has spanned 25 years, showed their patriotism by draping an American flag over their balcony, next to their Pride Flag.
Both were raised in military households, and Ian's patriotism goes back to his days in fourth grade, when the class read "Man Without a Country." As a longtime foster child, he related to the man adrift at sea with no place to call home. "One thing no one can take away from you," he remembers the teacher saying, "is that you're an American."
Has American patriotism changed since Sept. 11? Oseguera and the Dillon-Gehrigs say yes, and they worry that it's not necessarily all good. They say such high-pitched, widespread patriotism has stifled dissenting points of view — for instance, about what they call the illegal detainment of many suspected of having terrorist ties.
Every country, Oseguera says, has problems: "It doesn't mean you don't love them, but you do everything you can to get them on the right track."
"We have a responsibility as citizens," Steve Dillon-Gehrig says. "If you don't think something is right, you have to stand up and say so."
Still a patriot
Michael Kilmer was asleep when the phone rang that morning. His brother. Speaking fast, asking if he was all right. Babbling something about airplanes and the World Trade Center. Kilmer turned on the TV and soon was in shock.
On leave that week from his administrative post, his first instinct was to call in and see what he could do. Nothing today, came the answer. Nobody yet knew what the national crisis would mean for the Coast Guard.
But the tragedy made him realize how fragile the country really is, how much it needs to be protected. The Coast Guard is sure to grow, he says, with increased emphasis on homeland security. "What an exciting time to be in the Coast Guard," he says wistfully. "This is one of those things you're always training for."
Kilmer is moving on with his life, faithfully volunteering — as he has for seven years — with Rise n' Shine, a nonprofit helping kids affected by AIDS. Being patriotic means being active in your community, he says. "The USA is the best country in the world," he says. "But we have to be involved." He's also planning to pursue a master's degree in social work.
Still, he can't help but wonder: Where would he have been had he stayed with the Coast Guard? What would he have been doing? Chances are, he says, as an officer, he would have ended up on a ship or at the Guard's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Kilmer still loves the Coast Guard. He stands behind America all the way. If only he could wear the uniform again. Nobody would ask. And he wouldn't tell. "I feel left out of the fight," he says. "Our way of life is a sensitive thing. Apathy will kill it."
Maybe the most telling statement about the patriotism of Americans like Michael Kilmer since Sept. 11 is that it hasn't changed.
"I don't agree with our policy," he says. "But that's not going to make me any less patriotic. This is still my home. This is still my country."
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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