When Alexander Nicholson’s sexuality led to his honorable discharged from the army he began a lobbying effort to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He spoke about this endeavor with VCU students on Monday night.
Nicholson was outed when a colleague who knew he was gay told higher ups in the army. He was then honorably discharged in 2002 as a result . Nicholson went public with his story in 2005 and founded Servicemember United, a nonprofit organization for activism focused on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Nicholson became more involved in Washington and found out that most of the activists working on the issue were civilians who had very little to do with the military.
“It’s almost as if you had all white people working on the civil rights issues back in the 1960s,” Nicholson said. “Or if you had all men in a room working on women’s issues for policy of women’s issues.”
He began his lobbying by creating national speaking tours to raise awareness of the issue and trying to put a face to the issue. His organization scheduled 30 events in seven weeks to get the local media to cover the story.
They had some success raising the national profile and received a totally unexpected surprise, when Katie Couric of CBS Evening News, did a story on the Voices of Honor, which was a combination tour of Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers United.
The two groups had not pitched the networks at all and were surprised when the issue was covered by national media.
When President Obama mentioned “don’t ask, don’t tell” in his 2010 State of the Union Address it was a major turning point for the issue, Nicholson said.
However, the team’s excitement was quickly tempered by a conversation with Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff. Messina told Nicholson that despite the promise to pass the legislation that year, the White House had no intention to do so.
“I was kind of floored,” Nicholson said. “ It was a kind of a holy crap moment.”
He said these types of maneuvering by politicians portrayed in the television series House Of Cards is very accurate to what happens in Washington.
“I highly recommend it,” he said, “even if it is to be nothing more than to be entertained. In my experience, it’s probably about 98 percent accurate. It’s even funny for someone who works on The Hill a lot to see so much minute details and attention to detail they put into the show are quite accurate.”
It took another year of rallying and protests and Congress finally voted in favor of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Nicholson talked about how celebrities were especially helpful in getting the votes necessary. Specifically, he pointed to Lady Gaga a video she posted encouraging her fans to call their local lawmakers and ask them to vote for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Nicholson’s appearance at VCU was coordinated by Professor Allie Reckendorf, who was a colleague of Nicholson’s in graduate school at the University of South Carolina. She thought the talk would be very beneficial for her students.
“From a citizens standpoint to see what its like to have someone fighting for you,” Reckendorf said. “Its important to learn that the legislative process works in a messier way then our textbooks teach us.
From a student standpoint, its really good for people who know they like politics, they know theres things called lobbyists, but what does that mean on a day to day basis. So it kinda gives them a better idea of what to expect if that’s the route they try to go.”
Truong Do, a senior english major and political science minor, is enrolled in Professor Reckendorf’s class, where Nicholson also spoke earlier in the day.
“I thought it was pretty great,” Do said. “He’s a pretty engaging speaker. If you have a chance to speak to him one on one he’s very personable too.”