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Minnesota activist Jacob Reitan on hand for historic morning ceremony ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

When President Obama entered the room this morning, the crowd of about 400 people at the Interior Department was chanting, “Yes we can!”

Jacob Reitan — the Minnesotan sitting about six rows back from the podium where the president would sign into law a bill to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — started his own chant.

“Yes we did!” he shouted.

And soon all those other activists who had worked so long and hard to end discrimination against gays in the military were chanting, too.

“Yes we did! Yes we did!”

Reitan, 28, was one of a very small number from Minnesota invited to the signing ceremony. He’d received the invitation from a White House staffer who knew of his diligent campaign work on behalf of the president and, even more, his long work to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Reitan, a 2000 graduate of Mankato West High, was the founder of the Right to Serve movement in 2006. He and other activists, acknowledging to military recruiters that they were gay, went around the country attempting to enlist in the armed forces.

Reitan made his first attempt in the Twin Cities in 2006 when he tried to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard. He was rejected out of hand. When he refused to leave the recruiting office, he was arrested for trespassing. He ended up spending about 12 hours in the Ramsey County jail and ultimately paid a $150 fine.

Jacob Reitan
Courtesy of Randi Reitan
Jacob Reitan

It was the first of many times he would be arrested while attempting to enlist. In time, a documentary was done on the group and shown on public television.

At this morning’s ceremony, Reitan shook hands with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and told him of being busted for attempting to enlist.

“We both laughed,” Reitan said in a phone interview. “To his credit, he did so much to make this day possible.”

Reitan started the day early, arriving at the Department of Interior at 6 a.m. (Those invited had been told to arrive by 7:30.) Reitan was seventh in a line that soon quickly grew. That line was filled with people who had pushed for the change that was about to happen.

“Many of the people in that line had worked a lot longer on this issue than I did,” said Reitan.

Time passed quickly. The invited guests moved into the room where the signing was to take place. There were military leaders, such as Mullen. There were ex-soldiers who had been thrown out of the military for “telling.” And there were senators and representatives, including a handful of Republicans who had voted with Democrats to end the practice.

Then, the president entered the room.

“Yes we can!”

“Yes we did!”

In truth, there had been times many of the activists in the room had entertained doubts about the president’s determination to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“It’s easy to be discouraged,” Reitan said. “We couldn’t know what he had in mind.”

Discouragement was running at particular high levels following the outcome of the November elections. With Republicans taking control of the House and making major gains in the Senate, there were fears that elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be pushed down the line by years.

“But every time it appeared that the bill was dead, the gay community got even more active,” Reitan said.

Senators and representatives were being deluged with messages from constituents — gay and straight — to end the discriminatory practice.

The president spoke, and was at his eloquent best. Doubts about his commitment to civil rights for gays disappeared.

“A stain has been wiped from the slate of this country,” said Reitan after the ceremony. “It was the single most discriminatory [current] practice in this country, and it came to an end in a beautiful way. The president gave a great speech that showed how deep his commitment was. There were the cheers.”

Afterward, there were handshakes all around.

Reitan shook hands with many of the pols, including Rep. Tim Walz, who had been a teacher and football coach at Mankato West when Reitan was first coming out.

Then, there was the moment when Reitan, oft busted for attempting to join the military, shook hands with the president.

“How are you?” the president said to him.

“It’s a great day for America,” Reitan responded.

And then?

“The president said something else, but I can’t even remember what it was,” said Reitan, sheepishly. “I was star struck, and I wasn’t at my most eloquent.”

So now, after being busted for attempting to join the military, will Reitan sign up?

“I’m thinking about that,” said Reitan, who plans to enter law school at the University of Minnesota next fall. “So much has changed from four years ago. I’m close to 30. And I might have one other problem. I have all those arrests on my record. They might not take me.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/22/2010 - 06:07 pm.

    Since almost 25% of applicants out of high school can’t pass the entrance exam for the Army, I’ll guess that that the military will be happy to accept a college graduate. I’ll also guess that that Mr. Reitan had no intention of serving in the military and won’t try to now which is kind of sad since he has spent so much time trying to get in.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2010 - 11:29 pm.

    “So now, will Reitan sign up?”

    Heh. I guess we all knew the answer to that one before he told us that he’s kinda busy these days what with applying for law school and all.

    Maybe they’ll bring back the draft and he can start a new campaign to resist conscription.

  3. Submitted by Jean Lovett on 12/23/2010 - 01:12 am.

    Tom Anderson, you are so quick to judge the integrity Mr. Reitan. Whether or not he joins the military is not the point at this time in his life. (He was just recently accepted into law school.) His tireless work on behalf of gay military members speaks volumes to me. I have been following his work on behalf of GLBT human rights for a number of years now. I’ve been profoundly impressed by Mr. Reitan as a person of deep conviction and integrity. He is indeed courageous beyond words. A BIG thank you, Jacob!

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/23/2010 - 08:03 am.

    No doubt some of the commentariat, here, followed the chickenhawk example of their heroes, Rubaugh, Rove and Cheney who, although they LOVED sending other people’s children to war, NEVER considered putting themselves in harm’s way and, indeed, avoided service (by hook or by crook) when their time came.

    Or perhaps they followed in the footsteps of the CEO of Bushco and got their daddies to arrange for them to serve out of harm’s way. Then when they got bored with being in the national guard, just skipped out on the end of their hitch and got daddy’s friends to steal the official records so that no one could verify that’s what they did.

    Mr. Reiten did put himself in harm’s way and did jail time in order to win the right for his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to serve openly in the military.

    No doubt, if a draft is instituted it will not be Mr. Reiten who will be demonstrating against it (although he might demonstrate against wars that necessitated it). Rather, I suspect it will be some of the commentariate, here who will be demonstrating and screaming “Hell no! We won’t go!” if they, themselves, or their sons and daughters are the ones who are drafted.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/23/2010 - 11:29 pm.

    At no point in my post did I ever quesstion Mr. Reitean’s integrity. I did suggest that he was not sincere in his willingness to serve in the U.S. military. We shall soon see who is correct. I do concede that his willingness to work for the opportunity for other homosexuuals to die in the service of their country is admirable.

  6. Submitted by Jeff Johnson on 12/26/2010 - 12:25 am.

    I have been reading your entries all through my morning break, and I must admit the whole article has been very enlightening and rather well written. I assumed I would assist you to recognize that for some reason this weblog does not view well in Internet Explorer 8. I wish Microsoft might stop converting their software. I’ve a query for you. Could you thoughts replacing weblog roll hyperlinks? That would be in point of fact neat!

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/30/2010 - 06:40 am.

    “A stain has been wiped from the slate of this country,” said Reitan

    Let’s not forgot that the don’t ask/don’t tell stain, and others, are part of the legacy of the Clinton administration, and at the time touted as quite an accomplishment

  8. Submitted by Jeff Johnson on 01/30/2011 - 12:06 am.

    Nice to be visiting your blog again, it has been months for me. Well this article that i’ve been waited for so long. I need this article to complete my assignment in the college, and it has same topic with your article. Thanks, great share.

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