Former Marine Eric Alva may be best known as the first American seriously injured in Iraq. He gained media attention in 2003 when he stepped on a land mine, lost his right leg and sustained severe damage to his right arm after being in the country for only three hours. But that was just part of his struggle.
Alva joined the Marines in 1990 after graduating from high school in San Antonio at a time when gay people were banned from serving in the military. Three years into his service, Bill Clinton’s compromise—the since-repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy—left Alva feeling trapped in the closet.
He describes his 13 years living under the policy as stressful. He constantly had to lie about details of his personal life just to keep his job.
“Every day was like, ‘Am I going to get caught today?’ Or is someone going to ask me something personal today like, ‘Why don’t you have a girlfriend?’” Alva says.
Following his injury in Iraq, Alva took medical retirement from the military and began studying for a social-work degree. That’s when he met his partner, Darrell Parsons, a social worker in San Antonio. Parsons saw Alva’s experience as an opportunity to bring attention to LGBT rights in the military and introduced him to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group.
“He was never an activist,” Parsons says. “When I came into his life, I was the one who was the activist. I was the one who was saying, ‘We’ve got to do something to fight injustice.’ And so I encouraged him to use his story and use his voice and do something with it.”
In 2007 Alva became a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. His mission: ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In 2011 Alva stood behind President Obama as he signed the law’s repeal.
This summer Alva joined the fight in his hometown in favor of a proposal to update the city code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and military status.
In mid-August, while speaking to the San Antonio City Council, he drew attention to the cause in a way he never expected. As he was speaking about the lack of anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT individuals, Alva was booed by ordinance opponents.
“It was really astonishing and really shocking that there would be that much disrespect amongst people who preach kindness and human spirit,” he says.
Alva says his message of equality goes beyond just LGBT rights. “I knew I had to speak up when others share the same diverse background as me,” he says. “They’re not only gay and veterans or gay and Hispanic or Hispanic and veterans. We all have a little bit of diversity in us.”
Daniel Graney, co-chair of Community Alliance for a United San Antonio and a friend of Alva’s, says Alva is an example of how diversity can’t be categorized.
“It just goes to show you the intersectionality of all these issues, especially to those who say, ‘I can support protections for people of color or for veterans, but I can’t support it for LGBT people,’” Graney says.
Alva continues to tell his story and speak about inclusiveness at universities and events across the country. Earlier this year he helped state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) work on legislation that would protect LGBT people from discrimination statewide—a measure that will be difficult to pass at the Texas Legislature.
He says he plans to lobby full-time at the Legislature in 2015 on the non-discrimination bill. Even in Texas, Alva says, things are changing.
“I’m always defending Texas, even from a lot of my friends who say that Texas is never going to change. I beg to differ,” he says. “Texas has come a long way, and we are changing, and people are getting tired of being pushed around.”