“It was the proudest moment of my life,” Retired Staff Sgt. Eric Alva says as he shares the picture of him taken the day Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), the law barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual persons from serving in the military, was repealed. If you Google “Obama signs the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” you’ll see Alva smiling, standing immediately to the right behind of Obama as he signed the bill into law. “You know, that’s history, history in the making,” he comments as he fondly remembers his accomplishment. When Eric Alva sat down with Marquette University Student Government before his Speaker Series appearance on Nov. 14, 2013, he shared more about his personal experiences from fighting for equal rights and his thoughts on the current culture of equality and discrimination.
In 2003, Alva was honorably discharged from the military after an explosion from a landmine caused the amputation of his right leg and broke is left leg and right arm, and made him the first American Marine wounded in the Iraq War.
Alva looked at his devastating injury as a second chance at life and chose to advocate for gay rights in America, and even pursue legislation to make nation-wide change. Alva joined up with Congressman Martin Meehan to work for a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He got a chance to testify and share his story at the House Armed Services Committee Meeting in 2008, where he says he faced extreme opposition.
Alva remembers a testimony given in opposition of the repeal; marking the first time he had heard “ugly opposition to the repeal.” He recounted the testimony, which claimed that, if Congress repeals DADT, “you’re going to have men raping men and you’re going to have women raping women.” At the meeting that day, Alva had to listen to discriminatory comments about gay people that made his “blood boil.”
Though for Alva, it was worth the opposition to see DADT through to the end. He describes the significance of what being at the signing of the repeal meant to him, “Standing there represented people, ever since our country has been in existence, who were gay, lesbian or bisexual who served in uniform but could never be out.”
The signing of the repeal on December 10 22, 2010 changed history and now allows, “patriotic men and women who were valuable for their skills, just like everyone else…to be able to serve their country and even die for their county.”
Opposition to Alva’s equal rights activism did not end after the signing of the repeal. In August 2013, Alva was advocating in his hometown of San Antonio to update the city code to include sexual orientation and gender discrimination in their non-discrimination policy. He was booed during his testimony, and many of those against equal rights for gays made discriminatory claims about gay people.
Recognizing that he will always face opposition, Alva chose to look at the issue in a different way, “You really hear all the ugliness of what someone else's irrational fear is like. They are just not educated and they are basically ignorant.” Alva says despite facing lies and discrimination, he tries hard not to be like “them” (his opposition) because it will “eat you away.”
However, Alva pointed out that tolerance has come a long way since the beginning of the pursuit of equal rights for homosexual Americans. “There were people who were working on it years before me and I think they faced more harsh criticism then what I did when I was starting to work on repealing DADT.”
Alva urged college students to seek help if they are experiencing discrimination or unfair treatment. “No one should ever be bullied into hiding who they are…no one owns your happiness.”
He also commends and admires young people working towards equality and encourages students to stand up against discrimination, “No one should ever feel that they have the superior power to tell you how to be or act or love or where to live. I mean it's wrong. It is oppression. It's cruel.”
Looking to the future, Alva pointed to changes in history, in policy and in society that will contribute to a more tolerant America. Just recently with marriage equality moving forward in Hawaii and Illinois, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and with the election of the first openly gay senator, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, Alva is optimistic for the future. “It's remarkable how fast we're going. Makes me a little nervous, but I'm so happy.”