By Morgan M. Hurley
We lost an important leader and philanthropist in the local LGBT community last week: Benjamin F. Dillingham III.
I never formally met Ben, but having been involved with the Benjamin F. Dillingham III & Bridget Wilson LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor in the auditorium of the San Diego LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest — serving on its advisory council since the year after its inception and as co-chair these last two years — his legacy has had a huge impact on my life.
Ben was born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands. While in the Navy, I was stationed in Hawaii for four and a half years on active duty and then returned annually for nearly a decade while serving in the Navy Reserves.
A few years ago when I made the connection that Ben’s family was THAT Dillingham family, I was in awe. As a young sailor working swing shifts in Pearl Harbor, I drove down Dillingham Boulevard three times a week to attend classes at Honolulu Community College. His family’s roots were legendary there and here he was, already a legend in San Diego.
The Veterans Wall of Honor — and the decision to put Ben and Bridget’s name on it — was the idea of Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a San Diego city commissioner, LGBT and Latino activist, and a longtime supporter of our local LGBT military.
Ramirez visualized a space at The Center to honor veterans who served in silence in the wake of the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that was finally repealed in September 2011.
The wall’s unveiling — and its inaugural induction ceremony, which included Ben, Bridget, Jeri Dilno and Jim Woodward — was held Nov. 10, 2011, and has been held on the Thursday prior to Veterans Day every year since. To watch a portion of the inaugural induction ceremony, which includes Ben speaking, visit bit.ly/2mPkSPc.
Ben and Bridget were handpicked by Ramirez as the wall’s namesake’s — Bridget likes to joke that they had no choice in the matter — but their individual military histories, accomplishments and dedication to the local LGBT community is well-known to most. They both served their country at a time when doing their jobs the best as they could and living their authentic selves at the same time was not allowed in the U.S. armed forces.
Long before the Department of Defense directive known as “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” — its original catch-phrase, due to the legendary witch hunts — was put into place in 1994, Ben served a distinguished eight-year career as a Marine Corps officer. He knew he was gay; thankfully, he resigned his commission before they knew.
After leaving the service, Ben and Bridget forged their individual paths as true pioneers for equality, becoming aggressive activists and supporters of the repeal effort in myriad ways.
Always a strong presence at each induction ceremony, Ben preferred to sit near the back and just take it all in. While he didn’t like us to make a big deal of his presence, he’d stand or wave whenever we announced his name and I always sensed he was incredibly proud to be there.
He did, however, on at least one occasion, have to educate the advisory council that the order of the flags we had on display at the ceremony was incorrect (his Marine Corps flag was out of precedence). That is something we’ve made sure to get right every year since.
Though his health kept him from attending this year’s ceremony for the first time, Ben’s presence was felt. First, Ramirez announced the new Ben Dillingham LGBT Leadership Award at the start of the Nov. 9 event and gave the first awards to Dr. Delores Jacobs and Bridget Wilson in Ben’s honor.
We also honored transgender service members that night and I know Ben would have been proud to hear the voices of those who spoke at the podium — an active duty trans service member and two transgender inductees — and to see the large number of transgender active duty and veterans who were present in the crowd and stood when we asked them to.
Ben Dillingham’s passing has left a huge legacy of philanthropy, support, activism, leadership, and both quiet and assertive guidance to others in the greater local LGBT community that will be hard to replace or best.
For me, I’m proud that his name and contributions will always be remembered every November during the LGBT Veterans Wall induction ceremony.
I think we’ll save a chair for him in the back next year … and every year after.
Fair winds and following seas, sir.
— Morgan M. Hurley is editor of Gay San Diego. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Center’s website: The Benjamin F. Dillingham III & Bridget Wilson LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor recognizes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender veterans with ties to San Diego who have taken the oath to serve our country and have done so honorably, and with distinction, acting as role models in advancing equality. The Veterans Wall commemorates these veterans’ lives in hopes that their courage, bravery and sacrifices will continue to inspire future generations. For a list of those inducted to The LGBT Veterans Wall so far, visit bit.ly/2A1xANW.