Florida Keys News
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
War vet, author, activist leads Pride parade

It's fair to say that when Rob Smith was struggling through Army basic training at age 17 and then patrolling war-torn Iraqi streets, the thought of serving as grand marshal of a gay pride parade didn't cross his mind.

"I had no idea," said Smith, who served during the nation's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and was honorably discharged in early 2005 after five years. "If you had told me at that point, or even 10 years ago, I never thought of it."

Smith, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, enlisted so that he could later afford college. But his experiences of oppression, based both on his skin color and sexuality, while entrenched in the U.S. military machine inspired a career of activism that has him criss-crossing the country these days on the speaking circuit.

This week, Smith is the special guest of the Key West Business Guild, which invited him to appear at a host of events and top off the week by leading Sunday's Pride parade.

One of those preparade events is a first for Smith: a book reading and signing at a local VFW post.

The activist and journalist will read from his memoir "Closets, Combat and Coming Out" that chronicles coming of age -- and coming out to himself -- from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 2200 N. Roosevelt Blvd.

"I don't get a whole lot of invites from military groups," Smith said Tuesday, enjoying the first full day of his first trip to Key West. "This is actually the first one. Most of the time when I get invited it's a college, university or LGBT student group."

Smith said the VFW invitation means the world to him.

"I could not be more honored by the VFW choosing to host this event," Smith said. "To have this level of support as a gay veteran is most humbling. I will appreciate it until the end of time."

Smith left the Army and enrolled at Syracuse University, where he graduated with honors and went to work as a freelance journalist, landing columns in national outlets and taking on divisive subjects such as the Trayvon Martin killing.

In November 2010, Smith was among the dozen or so activists arrested outside the White House for demonstrating against the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that barred gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers from serving openly.

A month later, Smith was a guest of President Obama at the ceremony that marked the law's repeal.

But the defunct policy continues to discriminate, Smith said.

"It ruined so many people's lives, and still does to this day," Smith said. "When people were discharged, they got dishonorable discharges, which bar them from any benefits -- health insurance, college. Tens of thousands of people were dishonorably discharged under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"

Smith left the Army a decorated combat veteran. His term of service was up in early 2005, having enlisted in late 1999. But he said the oppressive policy factored into his decision to end his career as an infantryman.

"I left because it was becoming more and more stressful to live a lie," he said.

Smith said the political fight for gay rights was what helped him come out publicly. He believes the 1960s-era Civil Rights movement set the stage for other fights by oppressed groups, including gays and lesbians, but he doesn't like comparing the fight for racial equality with the LGBT movement.

"It's how I came to terms with being a gay person," Smith said of political activism. "I don't feel offended by that comparison. But in my life, I've experienced racism far, far more than homophobia."

Smith, who acknowledged he has experienced racism in the LGBT community, said he has no complaints about who he has grown up to be.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world, but I wouldn't change anything," Smith said. "This is who I was born to be. Why would I ever want to change that?"

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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