A few weeks ago marked the tenth anniversary of one of the best days of my life — the day that the U.S. government repealed "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the discriminatory policy that for decades prohibited open service for gay and bisexual people in the U.S. military. I stood behind President Barack Obama as he formally authorized the repeal.

Just a few days before, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers — including Republican U.S. Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Richard Burr — showed great leadership and came together in defense of thousands of out LGBTQ Americans serving their country. 

It meant so much to me after enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 19, serving for 13 years, and retiring as an E6 Staff Sergeant. In 2003, I stepped on a land mine while exiting a vehicle in Iraq and lost my leg in the explosion. I became the first service member seriously injured in the Iraq War – and the first of the war to receive a Purple Heart. 

I didn’t serve for the medals. I served to defend my country and our freedoms, to protect my fellow soldiers and our fellow Americans. I’m proud of my service, but it wasn’t easy: On top of my duties, I had to grapple every day with DADT, which required me to hide my identity as a gay man, a core part of myself. I felt the weight of that every day. 

Thousands of qualified service members were discharged under the policy, including my husband, who served six years in the Army. We met after I retired from the Marines and began sharing my story publicly to push toward repeal of DADT. 

I’ll never forget standing behind President Obama, beaming with pride, knowing that we were experiencing a functional moment of our government doing its job: Recognizing a problem that harmed Americans, passing strong legislation, and resolving the problem. 

But even as we celebrate this major milestone, it’s frustrating that Congress has taken almost no action on many other issues concerning LGBTQ people, including our top priority: Passing LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections nationwide. 

The fact is that at the federal level and in most states, including my home sate of Texas, LGBTQ people like my husband and I remain vulnerable to discrimination in many areas of life, such as housing, public spaces, and health care. Veterans and servicemembers alike feel the pain, and it’s not lost on us that even as LGBTQ Americans are serving and protecting our country, our elected officials are failing to serve and protect LGBTQ Americans. Every year, LGBTQ veterans who have risked their lives for the United States come home to states where they’re still vulnerable to discrimination.

Nondiscrimination protections would grant significant relief to LGBTQ people who face discrimination each year. A Center for American Progress study found that 1 in 3 LGBTQ people have faced discrimination in the past year, and that mistreatment or fear of discrimination can limit our ability to thrive. 

Comprehensive nondiscrimination protections could quell these fears and send a message that everyone is respected, welcome, and safe. And as a man with a diversity of identities — including not only being gay, disabled, and a Veteran of the Armed Forces but also Latino and Native American — I know personally how important it is that everyone feel welcome, regardless of who they are. 

The diversity of our nation is what makes America great. That’s the America that I fought for. 

Now, we have to keep fighting — this time, for respect and dignity for all LGBTQ Americans. I’ll never stop sharing my story and working to change hearts and minds until LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination in every single state. 

The next time the U.S. Congress takes action on LGBTQ issues by enacting comprehensive nondiscrimination protections, I may not be standing on the stage behind the president. But I won’t be any less proud and grateful to be witnessing a historic moment: A moment where we set aside all of our differences and unite around something we can all agree on — that no one should face discrimination because of who they are or who they love.  

The future we dream of — a future where LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination in every area of life — is not inevitable. It will require all of us to take action and do the right thing, including Congress. Let’s keep pushing: Congress, It’s time to act. 

Eric Alva is a Retired Marine Staff Sergeant and the first American soldier injured in the Iraq War. He played an instrumental role in the repeal of the military’s "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Published on Jan 08, 2021