In 2009, United States Navy veteran Joseph Christopher Rocha made headlines after coming forward with details regarding abuse he suffered at the hands of his military unit leaders for being gay. The following year, Rocha was asked to testify in the federal court challenge that eventually ruled the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy unconstitutional. For his role as an activist, Rocha has been featured on CNN and NPR and in various print publications, including GQ and Newsweek. Editorials authored by Rocha on the subject of sexuality in the military have appeared in The Washington Post, the Marine Corps University Press and on The Huffington Post.
Having recently discovered a 2010 letter written by Rocha to President Barack Obama in regards to the then-urgent need for congressional action and presidential leadership during a critical point in the fight to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I was awed by the hardships Rocha was forced to endure while serving his country simply because of his sexuality.
I never told anyone I was gay. But a year and a half later while serving in the Middle East, I was tormented by my chief and fellow sailors, physically and emotionally, as they had their suspicions. The irony of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply.
They say some people are just born designed for military service. It's the way we are wired, and the only thing that makes us happy. For too many of us, it's the only family we ever had. I am sure now, more than ever, after all the loss and hardship under DADT, that all I want to do is serve as a career military officer.
Mr. President, any delay in repeal is a clear signal to our troops that their gay brothers and sisters in arms are not equal to them. I plead that you take the lead—fight for repeal—and allow qualified men and women to serve their country.
Inspired by his courage, especially as an outspoken leader in the fight against Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I reached out to Rocha earlier this week to discuss what he's doing now, the importance of community service and his Lana Del Rey fandom.
CL: What are you up to these days?
JR: I left a law firm in San Diego in October of last year in the hopes of gaining community service experience while I applied to law school. After a six-week solo backpacking trip in Southeast Asia where I had the opportunity to volunteer in several rural communities, I made my way to Michigan where I served for six months as a public policy intern with the Detroit City Council. I'll be returning home to California early next week to begin law school in San Francisco, where my aim is to specialize in Civil Rights Law or Criminal Prosecution.
CL: How is what you're doing making a difference in the LGBTQ community?
JR: I'm one of many out LGBTQ community members whose service to the needy, regardless of their sexual orientation, contributes to a collective effort to break down stereotypes and increase understanding. Many of the early leaders of the gay rights movement championed this cause and I've watched how empathy has been rewarded with a genuine desire to see everybody treated fairly, regardless of sexual orientation. I think it has played an extraordinary role in shifting the tide of the nation's perception of gays.
CL: What LGBTQ issue are you most passionate about?
JR: I'm most passionate about the care of the elderly members of the LGBTQ community. Far too many of our most celebrated and admired early leaders have died alone in conditions undeserving of anyone. Those people began the cry for equality and lived through horrors unimaginable to us while being denied access to career, health care, insurance, marriage and tax benefits. As we move closer to full equality, it's our obligation to remember the generations on whose shoulders we stand.
CL: Can you name the one person whose contribution to the LGBTQ community has inspired you most?
JR: My biggest inspiration was Ms. Della-Rocco, my high school music director. An out lesbian who was teaching in the conservative Inland Empire, there was no gray area for her, only right and wrong. If that meant she had to kick down an administrator's door to ensure the fair treatment of one of her students, Ms. Della-Rocco was going to do it. Her values spoke to something universal that allowed her to supersede intolerance. She raised her students, in many ways, and did so while caring for a sick partner and while battling cancer. To her grave, Ms. Della-Rocco taught us that there is nothing to fear or shrink from, not even death itself.
CL: If you had to recommend one book, movie or song with an LGBTQ bent, what would your recommendation be?
JR: At the risk of sounding cliché, I have to recommend The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts. I wish I could give this book to every LGBTQ youth. It offers an intimate spotlight on a very human Harvey Milk who knew heartbreak and failure very well and who everyone can identify with.
I'm also an unapologetic fan of Lana Del Rey's music. There's something about the lyrics to the song "Bel Air" ("Didn't anyone ever tell you it's okay to shine?") that make me think of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters across the globe.
CL: What do you hope for the LGBTQ community?
JR: I hope that our wounds heal. For one person that may mean they get to marry their lifelong partner. For another person that may mean hearing their preacher take a stance in favor of full equality in front of a divided congregation. And for another person it may mean they finally feel comfortable placing a family photo on their desk at work without having to fear consequences. For me personally, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell was a step in the right direction, but my father telling me he was sorry and he was proud of me and that he loved me really started my healing process. Full equality is an environment we are fighting to create, but healing is the product we hope it will foster.