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In celebration of LGBT Pride Month, QBE North America last month sponsored its inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Speaker Series, featuring retired U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva. By coming out in 2007 as a gay former U.S. Marine, Mr. Alva played an integral role in the repeal of the 1993 “Don't ask, don't tell” policy that prohibited people who are openly gay from serving in the military, but protected solders from having to reveal their sexual orientation.
Organized by QBE's PROUD Business Resource Group, a group consisting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, more than 150 people attended the standing-room-only event that included an audience of QBE employees, clients and community representatives.
“I am a marine, veteran, Hispanic, disabled, gay man,” Mr. Alva said as he stood before the crowd, commanding its attention through his confidence in asserting that he belongs to four distinct groups within the spectrum of diversity. The impact of his statement set an endearing tone as he proceeded to share his story about DADT.
Serving in the military had been a life-long dream for the former Marine, who began service at the age of 19. “I always looked up to my grandfather and my father, which I still do, and so, I always wanted to be in the military,” said Mr. Alva. “I wanted to serve my country.”
Throughout his 13-year military career, Mr. Alva had been deployed to many locations around the world, including Somalia where he was involved in the logistics setup for Operation Restore Hope. But it was the last deployment of his career, Operation Iraqi Freedom, that would change his life forever. On March 21, 2003, the staff sergeant and 11 other troops had “stopped outside the city of Basra to re-group before entering the city to secure it from Iraq Forces,” he told the audience. Within three hours of occupying the area, Mr. Alva stepped on a land mine that exploded and seriously injured his right leg, which would become partially amputated, and also severed part of an index finger. “I thought I was going to die,” Alva said. “I started saying my goodbyes.”
Mr. Alva spent seven months recovering from his injuries and preparing for his new life, which now included the category of “disabled,” yet he continued to conceal his sexual orientation: Gay. As the first American to be seriously injured during the war, this Purple Heart recipient received national attention, which included an interview with Oprah, an article in People magazine as well as a visit by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
The tragic incident had turned him into a celebrity who was also considered to be an eligible bachelor available for a bride. “Everybody put me up on this pedestal that he's the first American, he's our hero,” Mr. Alva explained. He was often approached by people who expressed “…you should marry my daughter or you should meet my daughter.” People wondered why he was always alone.
Mr. Alva played the role of a straight man throughout his military career, knowing that DADT would end his military career with a dishonourable discharge if he had openly declared himself gay. Mr. Alva expressed to the crowd that he hated covering up his sexual orientation and “wondered what it would be like if people saw the truth.” However, one evening, he revealed to one of his colleagues that he was gay. The news quickly spread among his peer group, but it stopped there. They had all worked with him, they respected him, and they did not see where his sexual orientation had impacted his ability to do his job. No one ever reported the staff sergeant's secret.
In 2004, after a seven-month stay in the hospital, Mr. Alva retired from the U.S. military and began to carve out a new life for himself by enrolling in college, majoring in social work. Mr. Alva said he began to learn more about, “my own diversity…disabled, Hispanic, a veteran and gay,” yet he continued to face the unsettling realization that while people were putting him on a pedestal, no one really knew the truth about who he was.
In 2005, the state of Texas, where he resided, “passed a state constitutional ban against gay marriage. Other states were also proposing similar bans to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. “They had all these states where…I almost died for the people of this country, and I don't have the same opportunities or privileges or blessings, and that's so unfair,” said Mr. Alva. “I got to watching the news more…and I just finally…reached my boiling point.”
Fed up with the limited rights for people who are LBGT, in 2006, the retired staff sergeant reached out to the Human Rights Campaign, a national group that advocates for LGBT rights, with the intent of simply volunteering but was met with the challenge to come out publicly.
“You are like our golden ticket,” Mr. Alva said, recalling the HRC's response to his desire to volunteer. “You got injured in the war. You served your country, and there are people like you getting discharged every day…from the military just solely for being gay…come out publicly. Not just in your city, but to the world.”
This was a huge responsibility, but with the encouragement and support of his parents, Mr. Alva moved forward with the HRC's plan. An initial step was Mr. Alva announcing his sexual orientation on the ABC News morning show Good Morning America. And a few months later, in 2007, he began working with members of the U.S. House of Representatives on the Military Readiness Enhancement Act to repeal DADT.
Efforts to repeal the law included Mr. Alva testifying in 2008 before the House Armed Services Committee about his experiences, the contributions and skills of the members of military who are LGBT, and the thousands of men and women who had been discharged because of their sexual orientation.
In December 2010, almost four years after publicly declaring that he was gay, the former staff sergeant stood next to President Obama as he signed into law the repeal of DADT. “You're standing next to the most powerful person in the world,” Mr. Alva said, “to watch him take the pen and put the ink to paper was historic.”
The QBE Proud event was held in recognition of Gay Pride Month in June, which coincided with the tragic events in Orlando at a gay nightclub." In remembrance of the victims and in acknowledgment of the LGBT community's fight towards acceptance and inclusion, QBE CEO Russ Johnston led the audience in a moment of silence.
“The senseless attack on the LGBTQ community in Orlando sparked outrage in our company,” said Mr. Johnston. “The QBE Foundation made a $10,000 donation to Equality Florida Institute, Inc., and after the recent Orlando attack in the LGBTQ community, we are matching employee contributions to this charity which is supporting the victim's families.”
Retired Staff Sergeant Eric Alva will be the closing keynote speaker at the Business Insurance “Absolute Inclusion” conference on Thursday, Sept. 29 in Chicago. Learn more about the conference by visiting here.