Donald Trump rants about making America great again, but in truth the country has never been greater.
Proof of that is offered by the young married couple who ambled into a corner store in downtown Manhattan on Sunday afternoon.
Larry Lennox-Choate and Daniel Lennox-Choate were the first male gay couple ever married at West Point. Daniel graduated from there in 2007, Larry in 2009, both still in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a 17-year period when some 13,000 people were forced out of the military for being openly gay.
That only ended after a federal judge declared it illegal in late 2010. Daniel had by then served a tour as a platoon leader in Iraq. He was subsequently deployed twice to Afghanistan, in 2011 and 2012. He was on a brief leave from the war zone when he met Larry in Seattle.
“Met this guy and we decided to spend the next four days together before I went back to Afghanistan,” Daniel later said in a Facebook post.
Daniel returned home safe. And, in November 2013, he and Larry were married in the Cadet Chapel at West Point.
“My husband and I didn’t get married at West Point to make any kind of statement, we got married there because we love West Point and it’s a place we both think of as home,” Daniel later said.
The two left active duty, but only because they chose to do so. They lived in Boston while Daniel attended Harvard Business School and then moved to New York.
On Sunday afternoon, the couple took a Sunday stroll to Soho News International, a corner store on Prince Street that stocks a wide range of cultural magazines. They were happy proof of how far we have come just in the past few years.
Proof of how far we still have to go entered in the person of a 40-year-old man in a white T-shirt, blue shorts, and a black backpack. He began screaming what Larry would describe as “anti-gay obscenities.” He then sucker-punched Danny in the mouth.
“It’s hard to believe that in 2015 we would have to deal with anti-gay hate crimes in Soho of all places but that’s what happened,” Larry later posted on Facebook.
Larry put to the most practical use the physical training that is mandatory for all new cadets at West Point.
“He left covered in his own blood with his tail between his legs after I handled the situation and tossed him in the street like the coward loser he is,” Larry reported.
The police were called and subsequently posted a surveillance photo taken by a camera installed by the store’s entrance.
“The hate crimes division of the NYPD is on the case and we have full faith a positive outcome will follow,” Larry further reported. “We refuse to be victims and are thankful we can defend ourselves, but are saddened by the fact that idiots like this guy might not pick two guys who went through Plebe Boxing next time.”
News of the attack no doubt had particular meaning for those who had heard Daniel when he was the guest speaker at the Second Annual Pride Day Observance at Fort Hood back in June.
“Celebrating Victories That Have Affirmed Freedom and Fairness,” read the poster for the event.
As reported by the Fort Hood Sentinel, Daniel described some of his experiences in the not so long ago days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I kept everyone at arm’s length so they wouldn’t suspect anything,” he told the gathered soldiers. “Like any good platoon leader, I knew everything about my soldiers and NCOs—from their weapons range scores to their kids’ names to when they had doctor’s appointments—but they didn’t know anything about my private life…at times I felt isolated.”
He went on: “I worked hard to prove myself, though, so no one would question my right to belong. I took on tough assignments on deployment and worked to prove myself in infantry training and at Ranger school. Still, I worried a lot about secrecy and worked hard to hide my relationships from co-workers.”
He said that he and Larry had not been seeking to make history when they got married at West Point.
“We didn’t think anyone would take notice of our small private ceremony,” he said. “Many interpreted our wedding as a symbol that the country and the military had achieved a milestone in gay rights…We received so many letters from soldiers who were still closeted or afraid, or soldiers just thanking us.”
He spoke of the importance of people in the LGBT community sharing their experiences.
“We need to know our own history if we hope to progress forward,” he said. “If anyone understands the importance of history, it’s soldiers. We know that without understanding our history, we’re more likely to repeat past mistakes. We know that history can not only provide wisdom and guidance, but also inspiration.”
He spoke of the all-black regiments of “Buffalo Soldiers” and of the trailblazing Women’s Army Air Corps.
“They stood for a freedom that they did not yet know themselves,” Daniel said. “Their stories are of citizens so committed to their country that they served despite having an unequal [path].”
Those stories are now joined by the stories of the LGBT soldiers. The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was another step toward true American greatness, just as were the end of official segregation in the military and the significant progress toward equality for women.
This past March 11, Daniel posted a photo of a white military gravestone bearing the name of a West Point classmate. Captain Sara Knutson Cullen was a 27-year-old helicopter pilot and Bronze Star recipient who was killed on that date in 2013 in Afghanistan.
She had been a high school junior when she happened to visit West Point on the day before 9/11. She died in a war that had still not ended a dozen years later, that has still not really ended even now.
Yet if the country had stumbled into another quagmire and if the economy had faltered and if too many jobs had been outsourced and if gun violence was out of control, there had indeed been victories for fairness and freedom. Cullen’s commander in chief when she died was black. And the comrade who remembered her by posting a picture of her grave is a man who married another man at West Point in a ceremony such as the Supreme Court has since ruled to be protected by the law.
When Donald Trump says we need to make America great again, he is saying there was once a time when America was a stronger and better nation.
But however much work is still to be done, there is no denying that America has never been a better place to be gay or female or black or a person of any persuasion who believes in equality.
Therein is the promise of riches beyond the measure of money. And as we grow stronger in acceptance and tolerance and bonding is proof that the structure to admire most is not a tower that rises above everybody but a bridge that reaches from one to another.
Of course there is still much to be done, and better does not mean good enough. Racism remains a challenge for all decent souls, as does sexism. And Daniel speaks of the gay service members who remain fearful.
“The fact that we still have soldiers in the Army today too afraid to leave the closet should motivate us to continue down the path toward greater acceptance and change,” he said in his speech.
And then there are bigots such as the one who attacked Daniel and Larry in the corner store. The cops are all but sure to make an arrest, but there will still be too many more like him.
What Trump and the rest of us should be saying is this:
We need to make America even greater.