“I am somebody.”
This was the chant of Evelyn Thomas and 12 other veterans as they stood handcuffed to the gates of the White House on Nov. 15, 2010, protesting the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
As Thomas was arrested and carried away by police, she kept chanting, “I am somebody.”
Cpl. Evelyn Thomas joined the Army National Guard on May 17, 1986, at the age of 17. She was transferred from the National Guard to the U.S. Marine Corps in Camp Pendleton, Calif., but was honorably discharged in 1991 after a fellow Marine turned in a letter from Thomas’ mother.
In the letter, Thomas’ mother asked her about a woman she was dating.
“When they asked me if I’m a homosexual–I literally began to shake in my boots because I thought, ‘How did they find out?’” Thomas said in an interview with Color Lines Action News. “As I’m standing there shaking, my commanding officer and my supervisor began to laugh, because they thought it was funny.”
Before Thomas got involved in the protest of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she founded The Sanctuary Project, a nondenominational ministry.
“We’re a ministry of works,” Thomas said. “Not just words.”
The Sanctuary Project was established after the death of African-American Seaman August Provost, who was murdered in June 2009 while on active duty. Provost was bound and gagged, then shot and burned to death. It was widely rumored that his death was a consequence of being openly gay.
“My first thought after telling my wife was, ‘They are going to kill us all, until there are none of us left,’” Thomas said. “Then I decided to create a safe place– a sanctuary.”
The Sanctuary Project soon grew to provide not only a safe place for those serving under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but also everything from emotional support, to rides to hospitals. The Sanctuary Project also took up the task of informing family members of the death of a service member if the military should fail to recognize a person’s partner as a family member.
“Seaman August Provost was gay and was in a relationship,” Thomas said. “His department of the Navy didn’t notify his partner of his death, and the way he found out was a reporter calling his house and asking, ‘How do you feel about your boyfriend’s death?’”
After Thomas’ Sanctuary Project grew and gained recognition, she was contacted by Get Equal, an organization dedicated to full legal and social equality for LGBTQ community, about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell protest at the White House.
Initially Thomas had her doubts about participating in the protest.
“I was a high school teacher at the time,” Thomas’ said. “As the first in my family to go to college, I was immediately concerned about losing my teaching career. I decided to go, but not handcuff myself to the fence.”
But once the group arrived in Washington, Thomas experienced a change of heart.
“In the media surrounding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, you saw a lot of Caucasian males, but the largest population impacted by the policy, were women of color, “ Thomas said. “I saw them practicing how to conceal the handcuffs, and how to walk up to the fence, pretending like they were tourists, just taking a picture, and I knew I had to get the face of the women affected out into the media. I did it at the last minute, without any sort of discussion with my wife.”