Student body president Ashley Willems-Phaneuf found herself in an unlikely position last Monday: opening for Lady Gaga.
The Grammy-winning pop star was in town to headline a rally at Deering Oaks Park in support of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a controversial military policy that allows gays to serve in the armed forces so long as they don’t reveal their sexual preference.
Willems-Phaneuf had only been asked to speak at 11 a.m. on the morning of the rally, said she was excited to see so many students coming out for the cause. “If people are being discriminated against, it’s not right,” she said. “And the only way politicians are going to change it is if people do things like this.”
“It was fun. I think it was a really great experience,” said Willems-Phaneuf.
The rally was held by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national organization that lobbies against “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the day before the United States Senate vote on a bill that would have, among other things, repealed the controversial law. However, the bill received just 56 votes, falling short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate. Maine Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins joined all Republicans and two Democrats in voting against the bill.
The rally felt more like concert, with pop music blaring from a PA system, and many people showing up hours early to get a good view of the stage.
The crowd included many USM students, among them Karissa Huff, a junior. “I’m here to support my people,” said Huff, who identifies as a lesbian. “Everyone should be allowed to serve openly.”
Erin Britoni, a freshman at USM, said she thought Lady Gaga’s presence at the rally made a big difference, bringing the message to those who might not otherwise be reached. “It’s good that she’s here to provide more information about “don’t ask don’t tell,” because it’s getting that message out there,” she said.
Andrew Campbell, a student senator and a member of the Maine National Guard who served a year in Iraq, also spoke at the rally.
“The fact that a sizable number of the armed services today aren’t allowed to serve openly and honestly about who they choose to love is morally reprehensible,” said Campbell, a junior psychology and American sign language major, at the rally.
He likened the discrimination against gays in the military to that of women and people of color, arguing that the integration of those groups didn’t weaken morale or break unit cohesion in the military as opponents had warned. “There was a time in American history when people said the same things about African-Americans [serving in the military]. Today people of all races serve proudly and with distinction in the armed services,” said Campbell, had only been asked to speak around noon on the day of the speech.
Campbell said his name came up when the SLDN was looking for a local veteran who would speak against the policy. He said he has always been against the law.
“I was happy to do it because t is something I honestly think should end,” said Campbell.
Both Maine senators favor the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell,” but they expressed dissatisfaction with the bill that the repeal was part of, saying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s limit of three amendments to the bill was attempt at stifling debate. “I think we should welcome the service of these individuals who are willing and capable of serving their country,” Collins said before the Senate last Tuesday. “But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments. That too is not fair.”
Snowe said the policy is “overdue for review,” but the senate should first have the opportunity to look over input from men and women in the armed services before making a decision.
Lady Gaga expressed anger with the verdict on her website. “Today was an enormous DISAPPOINTMENT for myself and for many young American people,” she wrote. “…I will keep fighting, I will not give up. I am passionate about the rights of the LGBT community and SLDN, and I will continue to activate as many young people as I can, and encourage them to get politically involved in their future.”
The policy, which allows gays to serve in the military as long as they are not open about their sexual orientation, has come under fire in recent years. Proponents argue that open homosexuality in the military would break down unit cohesion and make many soldiers uncomfortable. Opponents of the law argue the policy is discriminatory, along with it being impractical to dismiss able, willing men and women just because of their sexual orientation.
Also in attendance was a preacher known to speak on the Portland campus who goes by the name Brother Terry. He said he is against gays serving in the military at all. “It is unrighteous and a sin. It will weaken the military because God will judge it.”
There were also differing voices of dissent at the rally. Vincent Michael Rubino and another young man, held a sign reading “Not Another Homo for U.S. Imperialism.”
“Basically I think the military industrial complex is corrupt and damaging, and I don’t see why we would spend so much time and energy trying to be included in it,” said Rubino.
The speeches started around 4:30 p.m., with speakers from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, and several veterans who had been discharged at various points in their careers due to their being outed as gay or lesbian. “This is not about rights,” said Maj. Lissa Young, who was discharged after 12 years of distinguished service. “Serving our nation is a privilege, and the issue is that the privilege is being screened out for a certain demographic,” she said.
Gaga’s black tour bus finally arrived during the last speech. Walking up to the microphone, Gaga launched into her self-penned speech, which she called “the prime rib of America,” likening equality to the best cut of meat America has to offer.
Gaga’s 16-minute-long speech centered on some people’s views that homosexuality in combat would affect “unit cohesion.”
The problem is not gay soldiers, Gaga argued, but with those soldiers who would have a problem serving with them. Instead of “don’t ask don’t tell,” Lady Gaga proposed a new law titled “if you don’t like it, go home.”
“If you are not honorable enough to fight without prejudice, then go home,” said Gaga.