By Albert H. Fulcher
For the first time in U.S. history, a wreath-laying ceremony took place in Washington D.C., at the Steuben Monument in Lafayette Park in honor of openly gay Revolutionary War hero Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, also known as Baron von Steuben, on Nov. 5.
Across from the White House, LGBTQ U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and National Guard veterans from across the U.S. united with members of the International Court System for the wreath-laying ceremony, bestowing two beautiful wreaths at the foot of his statue. One red, white and blue and the other in rainbow colors.
Sponsored by the International Imperial Court System and its chairman, San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, alongside a veterans committee headed by Rudy Legg Benavides, hospital corpsman 1st Class, Fleet Marine Force, U.S. Navy (ret.), Steuben was recognized and honored by the LGBTQ community for his role in American history. Both Ramirez and Benavides spoke at the event with Vietnam veteran Byron Terry Sidie leading the Pledge of Allegiance.
Steuben, a Prussian military man hired by George Washington to whip the Continental Army into shape during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, is known for the bravery, discipline and grit he brought to the American troops. Steuben served as on openly gay man and is known in U.S. history for his keen military mind and charismatic leadership, not his sexual orientation and gay relationships on and off the battlefield. Washington granted him citizenship and land.
Benavides reminded all at the ceremony that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy went into effect in December of 1993. DADT was controversial from the time it was implemented. It became increasingly a matter of public debate after 2004. On Dec. 15, 2010, a bill to repeal DADT passed the House with a vote of 250-175. Three days later, it passed the Senate 63-31, and on Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the new bill into law.
Benavides met his husband (an Army veteran) in late 2000. He said from the moment they met, they were pretty much inseparable. They followed the path of a normal couple.
“We dated for a while. We moved in together,” Benavides said. “We got a dog, we bought a car. Then I proposed. We had a beautiful commitment ceremony in 2003. Marriage wasn’t a thing yet. I [we] had a very good life. Except one thing. I couldn’t share that. I had to hide him. I had to hide my personal life. For 10 years. The military couldn’t know about him and us. Sometimes we must look back to realize how far we’ve come.”
Benavides said the day was to honor Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a man who whipped the Continental Army into shape. Steuben didn’t speak English, but he drafted a drill manual in French and then had Alexander Hamilton and Nathanael Green to translate. They were two of the Baron’s aides. Steuben began with a “model company” of 100 men and trained them. Once these men were trained, they in turn would work outward into each brigade.
“His instructions and methods have a familiar ring,” Benavides said. “Consider that much of what is done today stems from his teachings. Von Steuben introduced a system of progressive training.”
Steuben would often swear and yell at the soldiers up and down in German and French, Benavides said. And when that was no longer successfully intimidating, he would recruit an aide to curse at them in English, for him.
“Gay men have always been part of the American military,” Benavides said. “In a time before gay marriage or open Pride. Military men fell in love, formed passionate friendships and had same-sex encounters. Due to social and official discrimination, though, most of their stories have gone untold. But in the case of one of the military’s founding heroes, homosexuality was always part of the story.”
Ramirez acknowledged the important assistance of Congresswoman Susan Davis and her staff, who worked with officials of the U.S. National Parks Services, which granted a permit for the ceremony.
“The International Imperial Courts Council, founded by WWII veteran Jose Julio Sarria, plans to hold this ceremony every year,” Ramirez said.