Flanked by former service members in front of Independence Hall yesterday, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy made Philadelphia the first stop on a national tour to push for a repeal of the law barring openly gay individuals from serving in the military.
The Bucks County congressman and Iraq War veteran is the lead sponsor of a bill moving through Congress that would repeal the 1993 policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Calling the policy "a national security issue," Murphy said that more than 13,000 troops - including about 60 Arabic speakers - had been discharged for being gay since 1993, when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was implemented during the Clinton administration.
"I've seen so many great soldiers . . . kicked out under this policy," he said. "They did nothing wrong."
Over the next weeks, the "Voices of Honor" tour - five to eight gay and straight former service members - will take their message to at least five other cities across the country. They will share their stories and lead town hall-style public meetings at each stop. Some of the veterans were discharged for their sexual orientation.
Yesterday's session was the only planned stop for Murphy, but other members of Congress are expected to attend events in their home states.
Marine veteran and Philadelphia resident Joe Soto, 48, was among the repeal advocates who joined Murphy at yesterday's news conference.
An openly gay man who grew up in Hershey and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1983, Soto resigned his commission in 1991. The former Marine captain said he no longer wanted to hide his sexual orientation.
"I was proud to serve, but I had to do so in silence," he said. "We need to end discrimination now."
Former Army intelligence collector Alexander Nicholson, 28, who speaks several languages, including Arabic, was discharged in 2002 when he was outed.
Nicholson is the founder and executive director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops and veterans. He said he hopes the tour will "show the American public that this is the face of a gay soldier."
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1283) has 164 cosponsors. Murphy said he anticipates his own military experience will help bring in more supporters in the House and Senate.
President Obama has committed to signing the repeal if it is passed by Congress, Murphy said. Obama has faced criticism from some gay-rights advocates for refusing to issue an executive order halting further discharges until Congress takes action.
The tour's next stop is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday in Trenton, at the Mill Hill Playhouse at 205 E. Front St., and will feature a discussion with the veterans.
Tomorrow night in Boonton, N.J., the veterans are expected to attend a 7 o'clock public screening of a documentary on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," titled Ask Not, at Switch Nightclub, Bar & Restaurant, 202 Myrtle Ave.