Sunday, September 11, 2005


Pro-gay approach tried on battleship skeptics


San Francisco Chronicle
September 07, 2005

The "USS Iowa".

There's a new battle plan for bringing the battleship Iowa to San Francisco.

The battleship's supporters now hope to gain the support of city leaders by turning part of the vessel into a museum about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the contributions of gays, lesbians, ethnic minorities and women to the military.

The Board of Supervisors rejected the ship in July, and two supervisors explained their "no" votes by saying they objected to the military's policies toward gays and lesbians, while others opposed the war in Iraq.

"I think the Iowa could be a very powerful teaching tool regarding recruitment and U.S. defense policy," said Merylin Wong, president of the Historic Ship Memorial at Pacific Square, the San Francisco organization lobbying for the ship.

"There's a tremendous amount of archives documenting the contribution of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) veterans," she said. "It's all part of naval history, and it's all fact."

The ship is moored in Suisun Bay, and if San Francisco decides to bid for the Iowa, the city will face competition from Stockton, where city leaders already support the idea.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, wants the ship to come to Stockton, while Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, wants it in San Francisco.

A spokesman for the Navy Historical Society, which evaluates exhibits that appear on board donated ships, said an exhibit about a controversial defense policy would need approval from the highest level, the secretary of the Navy.

"That sort of thing would be judged on a case-by-case basis," said Jack Green, the historical society spokesman. "None of the (exhibits) I know of deal with social issues."

Contracts between the Navy and cities or nonprofit organizations that want to manage donated ships typically require that exhibits say nothing unflattering about the navy, government or military, Green said.

After the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 in July against a resolution that asked local congressional leaders to support bringing the ship to the city, Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty cited the unequal treatment of gays and lesbians by the military.

The ship already figures prominently in the history of gays in the military. An explosion in one of its gun turrets that killed 47 sailors in 1989 initially was blamed on an alleged murder-suicide that Navy officials said was carried out by a male sailor whose romantic advances to a fellow sailor were rebuffed.

After an investigation, the Navy could not determine what caused the explosion but announced that it was "most probably" sabotage, though the evidence was circumstantial and there was no proof that the sailor or his friend -- who was married -- were gay. Both were killed in the incident. Congress ordered its own review and found the most likely cause was a ramming error in the six-story mega gun.

The Navy apologized to the family of the sailor.

"This is an opportunity for San Francisco to be first in displaying the value of acceptance for minorities and others who have sacrificed their lives for this country," said Steve Boeckels, 31. A San Francisco resident, Boeckels graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1997 but was discharged from the Army under "don't ask, don't tell" in 2000.

Boeckels and two other San Francisco gay activists who work to change military policy contacted the historical ship organization with their proposal after the Board of Supervisors voted against bringing the ship to town.

They are now seeking support from other civil rights organizations, said Jim Maloney, director of the Military Education Initiative, an Atlanta-based organization that seeks veterans' support for gays and lesbians in the military.

"If we can have a museum that tells the history of LGBT service, that might be an opportunity to educate (people) and try to change their minds regarding gays and lesbians serving openly," Maloney said.

The group is working up a new resolution for the board to consider, but support for the new plan isn't clear-cut.

Maloney, who lives in San Francisco, has met with members of the mayor's staff and Dufty, whose district includes the largely gay Castro neighborhood.

But their support may depend on the moves of other players.

"I certainly can see how powerful it would be to have a ship containing an exhibit about gays and lesbians in the military ... but part of my position is also that the city of Stockton has put up $16 million, and the city of San Francisco is not putting up any money," said Dufty, who called the support of the mayor and the port "paramount."

Mayor Gavin Newsom's spokesman said the mayor was "open-minded" about bringing the ship to the city but that support from the Board of Supervisors is essential.

Port officials said they will look closer at the proposal for the ship, which is 887 feet long -- just 34 feet more than the Transamerica building -- if the board supports bringing it to town.

Several supervisors have talked with the port's director, Monique Moyer, said Renee Dunn, the port's spokeswoman, though the board has not formally asked for any recommendation.

Wong said the cost of bringing the Iowa to San Francisco would be covered by private donors. She said it will take 400,000 visitors annually to break even, and she expects it to surpass that goal.

Maloney and the other activists hope telling the stories of gays and lesbians in the military could lead to a reversal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and public opinion already is on the side of those seeking a policy change. A survey released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 58 percent of Americans believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military and 32 percent oppose such a change.

Gary Gates, a researcher with the Williams Project at the UCLA School of Law, estimates that if the military lifted its ban on gays serving openly, 41,000 additional male recruits would join the armed forces. More than 14,500 men now serving in the military are gay, he said. The Williams Project is a think tank specializing in sexual orientation law and public policy.

Last week, the California Legislature became the country's first legislature to ask the federal government to change its policy so gays and lesbians could serve openly.


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