Right to Serve campaign brings sit-ins back to Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

The quiet zzzzzppppp of plastic zip ties. A police officer’s low voice as she searches pockets. Camera shutters snapping away.

On Sept. 21 all of these were sounds of social transformation, said Matt Hill Comer. He was the city organizer for the Soulforce Right to Serve campaign, a program in which openly gay men and women attempt to enlist in the armed services.

The morning started cool and clear; enlistees Comer, Jessica Arvidson, Stacy Booe and Alex Nini gathered with supporters in a parking lot opposite the US military recruiting office. Representatives from media outlets poked microphones in students’ faces and asked them for their stories.

Comer, a politically active 20-year-old UNCG student, addressed the cameras dressed in khaki pants, a navy jacket and a perfectly knotted tie fluttering in the wind. The road that led him to the recruiting center started back in Winston-Salem during his freshman year of high school, when Comer joined the Army Junior ROTC program. Then, as now, his sexual orientation was an issue, and harassment from his fellow students forced him to quit.

During the next several years, Comer moved to Greensboro for college and became politically involved on campus, running for office in student government. His politics expanded to include the formation of a political action committee for the dual purpose of engaging young voters and advancing an agenda of equality for gays and lesbians.

He teamed up with Soulforce, a national organization dedicated to nonviolent protest against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, for part of what the group called an equality ride in spring 2006. The bus tour made stops at college campuses that ban the enrollment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

Two months ago, Soulforce organizers informed Comer of the Right to Serve campaign. One of those organizers, Katie Higgins, looked on as the Greensboro group prepared to stage the 16th such action out of 30 planned for this fall.

“The issue is not gays in the military,” she said. “It’s homophobia in the military.”

Comer mulled over whether to enlist for several weeks. The Department of Defense’s “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy precludes openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military unless they have a waiver from Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but Comer knew if he somehow enlisted, he might be sent to war zones in Afghanistan or Iraq. As he stood in front of the recruiting office, he addressed the crowd.

“I am answering the call of duty,” Comer said. “I want to sign up to serve honestly and honorably.”

Comer said that since the enactment of don’t-ask-don’t-tell in 1993, almost 10,000 gays and lesbians have been kicked out of the armed services, adding that an additional 65,000 serve in silence. Those serving under the policy’s provisions cannot report harassment or abuse due to sexual orientation and must avoid conversations about their personal lives, Higgins said.

“The only NATO countries that don’t allow gays in the military are the US and Turkey,” Higgins said. “Our strongest allies in the war on terror all allow gays in the military.”

Comer, Arvidson, Nini and Booe filed into the recruiting center alone, leaving the media outside. They asked to enlist, but told the recruiting officer that they would be unwilling to hide their sexual orientation as a condition of service.

“We sat down and talked to the recruiter and he was very personable,” Comer said. “I told him I wanted to serve my country and then I said there is one thing you should know about me that might be a problem. I’m openly gay and I’m not willing to hide that fact.”

The recruitment officer told the group that they could not enlist because of their open homosexuality. Their supporters, six in all, slipped into the office and joined the four enlistees in a circle on the floor, where all 10 sat cross-legged holding hands.

The police, who were aware of the impending action, had stationed a plainclothes police officer inside the recruiting center. Minutes after the group sat down, he asked them to leave or risk arrest. Only Booe left; the nine others were cuffed, searched and loaded into a Guilford County Sheriff’s Office van. They were taken to a mobile command center, brought before a magistrate and charged with trespassing, a Class 2 misdemeanor. Their court appearances were set for Oct. 23.

Comer invoked the spirit of Greensboro’s 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins before his arrest, but the quiet, mannered conduct of the police and army officials resembled none of the physical and verbal abuse white Woolworth’s patrons heaped upon the A&T four. The tables turned this time around as well. Instead of protesting for the right to be served, the students acted out of a desire to serve. Before he entered the building, Comer pointed out the similarities.

“Just like the four A&T students did when they sat down at the Woolworth’s,” he said. “Once again the youth in Greensboro are standing up for what is right. Once again the youth are going to take a stand.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at