New Yorker Justin Crockett Elzie was a U.S. Marine who served around the globe. In 1993, he came out on the ABC Evening News shortly before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted. He’d eventually become the first Marine discharged under that law.
How are your wrists feeling?
[Laughs.] Did you see the pictures? Did it look like I was screaming? Yes, I was in pain — but I wasn’t hollering, I was just squinting. What they did with me — they cut the chain between the metal handcuffs, and they left the metal handcuff on my left hand before they put on the plastic handcuffs. It was so tight, it was digging into my bone. Every time I moved, it was touching my nerve. I told the guy I was losing circulation and my hand was turning blue. They took off the plastic cuff — but it took five minute. They had them so tight, they couldn’t get the cutters between my skin and the cuff. It was painful but it
comes with the territory. It’s not a big deal. In fact, when the cops in DC saw that I had been arrested in New York [for chaining himself to the city marriage bureau on Valentine’s Day], they asked, “Who’s nicer? Us or New York?”
So? Who is it? The NYPD or the DC police?
I’m not going to answer that. I’ll get in trouble.
Whose idea was the last White House action? Did you plan in advance, or was it spur of the moment?
It was GetEQUAL. When you look at this, it was so successful for a couple of reasons. Number one, all the talk before the action was about everyone backtracking. The White House was saying, “It’s not a great shot if we try it.” Levin was talking of pulling repeal out of the National Defense Authorization Bill. It was sort of like a warrior ethos. First, we go visit the grave of a fallen comrade, Leonard Matlovich — there was a service at his grave. Then we went into Reid’s office, and Dan Choi is right up front with us, and he asks if Reid’s going to bring up the bill before December. The Deputy Chief of Staff looked like a deer in headlinghts. Two mintues later, a young military fellow comes out — a military liaison. He doesn’t know if Reid’s going to bring it up, if it’s going to be included in the bill in the lame duck session. Then Dan, or Robin [McGehee] asked, has the president been engaged? Has the presient talked to you? (Laughs) And the answer was, no, the president hasn’t been engaged. That set the stage that we were going to the White House.
What was the result of the action?
JCE: It set the tone. As soon as that happened, look at the last week! You’ve got these moderate Republicans coming on-board — Murkowski, Ensign — if Reid brings up a fair amendment process. What this comes down to is Senator Harry Reid bringing this up the right way, so the Republicans can debate it. And here’s the thing. They don’t have the votes to actually add an amendment. It’s not a danger that they’ll add a dangerous amendment. There are enough votes to kill a filibuster. We’ve got the votes, if McCain filibusters.
Why’d you come out in 1993?
You understand. You grow, and we have to come out. It was really an evolving process. I had matured enough. I had just spent almost four years overseas, between Japan and Embassy duty. I was in Helskinki, Finland — and then my next posting was in Egypt during Operation Desert Storm at the American Consulate in Alexandria. During Desert Storm, there were gays and lesbians getting discharged when they returned home. Then Bill Clinton came along in 1992, and I had just gotten stationed back in the States, and I vowed that I wanted to get a lot more involved and make a difference. I had been in the Marine Corps for ten years, and I was upset to see in the press that gays and lesbians could allegedly cause bad morale. In 1992, I was stationed at Camp Lejune, and there were some big cases of people coming out. I had gone to a couple of veteran events, to find out how I could help. And so, I had met some news people, and some people asked me to serve as a liaison to the underground [gay] network in the military. In 1993, it was in January, and I was supposed to be getting out two months later in March. In March, we were expecting Clinton say the gay ban would be gone — but then he said there would be a review. An ABC news crew came to Camp Lejune, and went to the gay bar, and the bartender called me to come with people to talk anonymously. We were blacked out [on camera] and our voices modulated. But when we got done, the newsman turned to me and said, “Have you ever thought of coming out?” And it was like a light bulb going off. I was going to get out in two months. You’re a has-been once you’re out. I knew deep down if I got out quietly, there would always be that part of me me thinking I didn’t stand up for what was wrong. I would have thought I had wimped out as a an active duty service member. That’s how I decided to come out. My boyfriend was also a Marine. We were living together off base.
Was he supportive?
He was not supportive — and rightfully so! I’m about to out myself, and it’s going to affect him, as well. There is guilt by association.
How did you get back in?
I came out, and I went though a discharge hearing. They acknowledged that I was an exemplary Marine, but that I’d said I was gay was enough for me to be discharged. The day that I came out was the day Clinton backtracked and said they’d do a six month review. By July, they came up with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So in the mean time I was put through a discharge hearing, then I testified in front of the Senate. Not too soon after July, I was discharged and I had a court case. The judge gave us an injunction and told the Marine Corps they had to put me back on active duty until the completion of the case. I stayed on active duty for another four years, and during that time for I came up for promotion.
Are you surprised that it’s 2010 and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is still around?
Yes and no. In one way, I’m not surprised [because] Congress is always more conservative than the rest of the country. We’ve been living through the Bush years and nothing would change during the Bush years. I am surprised that with Obama, even though we’ve got 75 to 80 percent approval to do this, it’s still a problem!
Did you support President Obama in 2008?
I was a registered Green. I was actually routing for the Green candidate, but I also loved Hillary. I thought Hillary was great. I never really trusted Obama. I thought he was less substance than Hilalry was, do you know what I mean? And I think he’s proven himself to be that way — a lot of talk, and little action. That’s one of the reasons the Democrats are upset.
And now? Who do you support?
I will be voting for the Green candidate for President. I will not be stepping in the Democrats’ circle.
Since your discharge, several other nations have repealed their LGBT military service bans. What are your thoughts on how other countries have handled it?
In 1992 and 1993, there were polls showing 50 percent of Americans supported gays and lesbians in the military. And then Israel got rid of their ban, and several countries got rid of their bans. Ten years out, the UK’s military is fine! That’s another thing that gets me — Obama says he wants to do this in “an orderly fashion,” which is bullshit. The courts stepped in and for eight days, there was no Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Dan was re-enlisting, and nothing happened. The UK did it! It was orderly! Obama is trying to appease the military hierarchy. “An orderly fashion” is double speak, and it’s putting in the public’s mind the idea that, “Well maybe the gays might casue unit cohesion problems!” Which is bullshit. Take it from a guy who served, openly gay, for four years.
Having watched John McCain over the years, are you surprised he’s still fighting this?
Way back when, when McCain said that the day the generals were OK with it he’d vote for repeal — you know he never had a clue that day would come. He assumed the military leaders would never be on board. That was his frame of mind, and that’s why he was comfortable saying that. When Admiral Mullen went before Congress and said that lesbian and gay soldiers should be able to serve openly, that was the huge domino that set things off. That was more powerful than anything Obama has ever said.