As veteran panelists considered, local hopes for inclusion of gay vets

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

— As the town prepares to put together a new veterans advisory panel, at least one Garner-area resident has voiced concern about ensuring diversity on it.

In particular, veteran Willie Pilkington would like to see representation of gay and lesbian veterans on the panel, a group he feels is often forgotten and sometimes alienated,

Pilkington, in emails to town leaders and the press, noted the recent decision allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. To him, reaching out to any groups long-disenfranchised falls on the government, and he said he hopes the town is reaching out to all subsets of veterans, including gay ones.

“We are discussing the men and women, all U.S. military veterans, who have placed their lives on the line,” Pilkington wrote. “If any government official is not working very hard to communicate with and assisting in broadly reaching out to us, all veterans … they are doing wrong.”

Pilkington said he and his spouse, also a male Vietnam veteran, have been together for 35 years, and struggle for inclusion. And he said the town has not always come through when it comes to making all groups feel welcome.

“The Town of Garner’s elected and administrative officials are making some very serious mistakes in how (they) conduct public observances, when it comes to full inclusion, sensitivity and respect,” Pilkington said.

The town has yet to begin selecting the seven-person Veterans Advisory panel, which will include at least four veterans. Faye Gardner, vice president of the Veterans Memorial Committee – the new board will more or less replace – said many applications have been received; the board is expected to be organized by early next year.

Council members Gra Singleton and Jackie Johns will go through applications collected by the town and nominate a board for the council’s approval. Singleton said they haven’t worked out a criterion for that process yet.

Mayor Ronnie Williams, also a Vietnam veteran, said the town always attempts to achieve diverse representation in any committee. Regarding gay veterans, he said he didn’t know that it would be a factor, but he was open to the discussion.

“I don’t know how we’d know that. When looking at the resume, there’s no where that they indicate they are a homosexual,” Williams said. “Nobody’s reached out to me. I’ll sit down with them (and address any concerns).”

But Pilkington said that despite the long emails laying out his concerns, that doesn’t appear true to him.

“I have not heard anything back from any of these Town of Garner officials seeking further information from me or seeking any additional advice as to how to include gay and lesbian military veterans from Garner or simply thanking me for my suggestions … nothing,” Pilkington said.

Past events

Pilkington also voiced concerns about past events. In particular, he criticized the location of the town’s annual, well-attended Veterans Day observance at Aversboro Road Baptist Church.

Pilkington notes that church belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention. That network of churches states a position that “homosexuality is not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle.’”

“The public is much better served when everyone within our population is made welcome and included, and the town of Garner is simply not taking steps to accomplish this, as one can see so blatantly displayed in their official public Veterans Day ceremony,” Pilkington said.

Gardner said the church had nothing to do with the event except for lending its space. Last year, the Garner Performing Arts Center hosted it, but the space was a poor fit for the symphonic band and the program in general, she said.

“The reality of it is if we could find another place, we’ve always taken that into consideration. It’s inside Garner; it doesn’t cost anything,” Gardner said.

Gardner, a member of Aversboro Road Baptist, rejected the notion that the church is anti-homosexual, saying that SBC churches a free to take their own positions on the issue, and that she’d never heard anything prejudiced professed at what she said is a church with a diverse congregation on the liberal and accepting side of the SBC spectrum.

“We embrace anyone that wants to come to worship,” Gardner said.

Williams took to the defensive as well when it came to any assertion that any veteran-honoring service was negative.

“The sad part of the whole conversation is that the service is said to honor veterans, and it’s unfortunate that some person would find reason to criticize that,” Williams said.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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