They served their country and died in battle though they lived their lives in the shadows.
Now a solemn site in California’s Coachella Valley ensures the sacrifices of gay and lesbian veterans will not be forgotten.
A Saturday ceremony in the desert community of Cathedral City, two hours east of Los Angeles, formally designated the California LGBTQ Veterans Memorial an official state memorial.
“It’s kind of a holy place. This is a place to pray for people who died in wars,” Tom Swann Hernandez of Cathedral City told The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday. The gay Marine veteran has been at the forefront of the state designation effort for nearly two decades.
“I had someone come to me and say, ‘My lover died in World War II and I wasn’t able to go to the casket and kiss my spouse,’” Swann said. “It’s a place for closure.”
California is the first state in the nation to designate an official memorial to honor gay veterans.
The journey to Saturday began nearly two decades ago in 2001 with a simple plaque at Cathedral City’s Desert Memorial Park, then believed to be the nation’s first memorial of any kind to gay veterans.
Swann Hernandez served in the Marines and went on to lead an American Veterans, or AMVETS, post in Cathedral City. Swann was there from the beginning, stumping for official state recognition of the memorial three years later in 2004. The plan met resistance, even in gay-friendly Cathedral City, next door to its higher profile sister, Palm Springs, during the height of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which forbade gay service members to disclose their sexual orientation.
“It was very controversial - they did not want it. In 2001, gays still couldn’t serve in the military. The military denied their liberty to say who they were. They served in silence,” Swann Hernandez said. “A ‘gay veteran’ is not an oxymoron. They’ve always served.”
A bill in 2004 to designate an official memorial survived the state Legislature, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislation. President Barack Obama would later lift “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but it wasn’t until last year that a second effort to win official state recognition for the memorial reached the state Capitol.
Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, authored the bill. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation in August.
“It’s a way for us to make a wrong right in our nation’s history,” Garcia said at Saturday ceremony, the (Palm Springs) Desert Sun newspaper reported.
“These memorials are very important to people. They mean something. It’s physical recognition - only God knows how many gay people died for this country. They weren’t equal in the eyes of the country they fought to defend,” Robert Moon told The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday. “It’s recognition that a group that’s not recognized as equal is now officially recognized as equal to everyone in the country.”
Moon is the mayor of Palm Springs. For 26 years, he served in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer. He graduated from Annapolis and retired a commander. He also never revealed his sexual orientation - or openly discussed the man he married. To do so would have ended his career.
Moon recalled how he and other gay officers had to meet in secret - a weekly brunch; a quiet gathering to pin bars on a newly minted ensign
“We had to keep it secret,” Moon said Tuesday. “It was a matter of survival, but we got pretty good at it.”
Moon met Bob Hammack, the man who would become his husband in 1981. Moon retired from the Navy in 1994. For 13 years, he lived in silence.
“It was really hard to maintain a relationship - we had a couple of close calls,” he said.
Shortly before Moon retired, his boss, an admiral, told him there had been rumors and an investigation was underway.
“He said, ‘You’re doing a great job. Just be careful,’” Moon said. “If you didn’t embarrass the service, they overlooked it.”
Moon spoke at the Saturday ceremony in Cathedral City. On Tuesday, he recalled a veteran he met afterward and what the memorial means.
“It’s very symbolic. There was a 92-year-old (at the ceremony). He grew up in the Midwest during the Depression. He went into the military during the war. His friend was killed by a sniper in World War II in the Philippines - his friend has never been stateside recognized. But in California, we’ve moved ahead,” Moon said. “It will be very meaningful that this memorial exists.”
The memorial, designated as President Donald Trump’s policy restricting transgender service went into effect earlier this month, gave the designation added resonance. Laura Meeks, a retired United States Air Force major and B-52 pilot, transitioned to female after retiring in 1994. The Rancho Mirage resident has been married 33 years to a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Meeks said she remains confident that the controversial policy is “a temporary delay in the inclusion of all Americans. I don’t think America as a whole is on board with this. One of the values of military service is that the only issue is, ‘Can you do your job?’” Meeks said. “This memorial says to all veterans - to LGBTQ in particular - that they’re not forgotten, that there’s one place, in Cathedral City, California, that says, ‘We get it.’”