RON RASMUSSEN certainly isn't your typical gay man. First of all, he's a Republican. A Vancouver, Washington, business-owning Republican, and he's wearing a crisp blue-collared shirt and khakis when I meet him. On top of that, he's a decorated Air Force veteran.
"There are actually a lot of parallels between the Army and the queer community," says Rasmussen. "The importance of appearance, the importance of parade, the overuse of acronyms."
Acronyms is right: As pressure builds to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Portland's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Allies (LGBTQIA) community is resuscitating a long-dormant group: Veterans for Human Rights (VFHR). The group has been around in Oregon since 1993—they even had a state-issued vanity license plate—and now local vets have revived the group at North Mississippi's Q Center. They're planning a big regiment for the June Pride Parade.
I first saw Rasmussen speak in the middle of winter at a panel about DADT and I remember him from the rest of the small crew of queer veterans mostly because he makes himself unforgettable. He speaks with machine-gunfire rapidity and has an unnerving penchant for spewing out dates, numbers, and obscure legal code with absolute 100 percent certainty, sir! At a recent VFHR meeting, he came booming into the room a couple minutes late. I ask Rasmussen about his time in the service. I'm surprised when he replies, "It was a lot of fun! I had a lot of opportunities!"
Um, what about the whole "being gay" thing?
"As an officer, you're supposed to be a leader and I definitely was," he says. "I was so focused on the job, I wasn't really romantic. I suppose you could say I was closeted."
Both Rasmussen's parents were in the Air Force and he grew up on bases all over the world. He came out slowly in 1984 when he was 25, after a relationship with another male service member.
"I thought to myself, 'I don't know what I am.' It was devastating, it was tortuous, but it was also a relief, if that's possible," he says.
Rasmussen had two same-sex relationships in the service, he says, adding that figuring out who's queer in the armed forces works the same way as it does off base: "It's all in the eye."
And he remembers the witch hunts. They would begin with gossip that so-and-so was being investigated. That person would be passed over for promotion, switched to a different position. Rasmussen, who designed Air Force buildings, was passed over twice for promotion to major. When he left with an honorable discharge in 1988, after 11 years of service, his base commander pinned a Meritorious Service Medal on his chest. Exactly one year later, Rasmussen organized his first gay rights demonstration at an Air Force base in Fort Worth, Texas.
"There was this group called GUTS—Gay Urban Truth Squad—and we met at the Neiman Marcus in the mall, of course," he says. "We marched and sent out press releases and then we found out there was a gay man in the military PR office, so he became a mole and started funneling us information."
Whereas living gay in Texas was a challenge, being a proud veteran in Portland has won Rasmussen a little unexpected scorn from some LGBT types.
"In Portland, it can be tough," he says, adding that his uniformed unit in the Pride Parade is met with loud applause across the entire parade route.
And what would Rasmussen's base commander think of him marching beneath a rainbow flag?
"I believe there are a lot of people I worked with who would be fine with me now," says Rasmussen. "There should be no unwanted patriots."