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Image Dr. John Whitener: An Optometry Officer and a Gentleman

“I had been taught to never tell a lie…but I lied.” 

Dr. John Whitener pauses for a moment during his 2021 remarks for Ohio State University’s Myers Award lecture. He continues, “I checked ‘no’ to homosexual tendencies.”

It’s 1964, and John, in his last year at Illinois College of Optometry, was in a predicament. “Approaching graduation, I had only had about 100 patient encounters. I felt very unprepared to set up practice. There were no externships available, so how could I get more practice and training? 

“My answer was the military.”

It wasn’t long before John met with an Army recruiter, signed the paperwork, and took the induction physical exam. “I survived the physical, but to complete the questions on the medical history form, I confronted a moral and potentially life changing dilemma:

“The question on the form was: ‘Do you have homosexual tendencies?’’’

“I survived the physical, but to complete the questions on the medical history form, I confronted a moral and potentially life changing dilemma…”

At that time, checking “yes” meant a 4-F classification, deeming someone “unfit and undesirable” for military duty. At that time, checking “yes” meant John could lose his optometry license in North Carolina, where he intended to set up practice near his hometown. Checking “yes” meant up to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Checking “yes” meant forfeiture of all military pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge for anyone caught engaging in consensual same sex activity. 

At that time, checking “yes” meant any same sex activity could be prosecuted under The Uniform Military Code of Justice (UMCJ) Articles 125, 133, and 134, defining homosexual behavior as “unnatural”, “undermining good order”, and “unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.”

And even beyond that, checking “yes” meant something even more to John:  “I couldn’t reconcile the idea of falling from God’s grace, nor could I handle my parents finding out. The consequences would be devastating.”

So being left with an impossible choice, John checked “no.”

Over the next 10 years, John’s full-time military service brought him thousands of patient encounters (his reason for joining), 14 months at Ireland Army Hospital (located in Kentucky, much to John’s disappointment), and a deployment to Vietnam, where he witnessed first-hand the brutal consequences servicemen faced when suspected of having “homosexual tendencies.” John writes about these heartbreaking experiences, as well as his own spiritual struggle to reconcile his faith and his sexuality, in his memoir Don’t Ask and I will Tell: Finding Myself in Vietnam.

After a decade of service, John was at a point in his life where he could finally accept and embrace his sexuality, but it would be years – decades more – before the military would (Article 125 wasn’t repealed until 2013). So in April of 1973, John submitted his Army officer resignation.

Determined to live as an openly gay man for the first time, John visited Hickory, North Carolina, where he faced what had been one of his biggest fears: telling his parents he was gay. “My parents were deeply religious evangelical Christians who raised me in the Church,” John reflects, “so of course telling them gave me pause.” 

After coming out to them, John’s parents responded, “Of course we still love you” – words John knows not every LGBTQ+ child gets to hear – “I was grateful. My parents were amazing.”

John left Hickory to spend the summer of 1973 in San Francisco while he figured out what to do next with his life and career. As fate would have it, by the end of the year, John found himself back in North Carolina. Only this time, in Chapel Hill, where he was accepted into the Masters of Public Health program at UNC.

Outside of his coursework, John became an outspoken activist for gay rights. “I lived closeted for so long, and I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that. I wanted to make it easier for gay students to come out, and to be comfortable doing so, and for others to accept their gay friends and relatives.”

“I lived closeted for so long, and I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that.”

In 1974, John became a founding member of the Carolina Gay Association (now known as the Sexuality and Gender Alliance), spearheaded by fellow graduate student Dan Leonard. “Our monthly meetings, which were held in the Student Union building – not in a basement hidden away somewhere – made a visible statement that we were a part of campus life,” John explains, “We held dances that welcomed everyone…even heterosexuals,” he adds with a laugh. 

“To dispel misinformation and prejudice about gay people, I was a member of the speakers group, which went to classes at UNC and other universities to tell our story and answer questions people might have.” John’s involvement with the groups grew, and in 1976, they hosted the first conference for gay university students across the Southeast region. John took the lead on recruiting two prominent speakers from Washington, D.C.: Frank Kameny, often hailed as “one of the most significant figures in the American gay rights movement,” and David Kopay, who in 1975, became the first professional athlete from a major team sport to announce publicly he was gay.

After another year of studies and another successful conference, John graduated and was hired by the American Optometric Association in Washington, D.C. as Assistant Director Federal Relations and advocate for public health programs. From 1977 to 1997, John called Arlington “home”, and his career and life flourished.

As he advanced in his optometry and public health career, John also continued to fight for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. In 1984, he became President of the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Association (AGLA). During his tenure, he organized AGLA’s first meeting between state representatives and members of AGLA, he worked with the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Task Force to help protect gay and lesbian County employees, and he partnered with Arlington County Board members to include protections for gays and lesbians under the Human Rights Commission.

When John’s term as AGLA President ended, incoming President Fred Parris penned John a letter, writing, “Your dedication and willingness to continue with an AGLA leadership role year after year have encouraged me to likewise continue the struggle and not retreat into private concerns…Whether they realize it or not, thousands of gay Virginians are in your debt.”

During the height of the AIDS epidemic, John was appointed by multiple county agencies to help advocate for and create curriculum that not only presented the facts about AIDS, but also included positive – or at least neutral – information about homosexuality. When reflecting on some of these committee meetings, John says with a heavy heart, “It was one of the worst things in my life. Most committee members at the time were very consensus-oriented, but one man was extremely anti-gay and extremely vocal about it, and when we opened the committee for public comments, some people were just vicious. I called my parents, and I cried.

“And I cry today thinking of this viciousness still being directed toward trans kids,” he adds. 

Yet whether it’s fighting for gay rights in 1985 or trans rights in 2023, John knows one thing for certain: “We’re in this fight for the long haul.”

Looking over John’s life so far – a 2002 “Distinguished Service Award” from American Public Health, delivering the 2008 commencement address to his alma mater, a 2013 honorary degree from the New England College of Optometry for his lifetime of contributions to public health, a 2017 memoir, a partner of over 30 years, and so much more – you might think John has already done his share of “the long haul.”

But for John, who’s now living in what he calls his “bonus years”, he recently asked himself the question, “How do we perpetuate the things we believe in?” And in talking to his longtime friend and Arlingtononian, he learned about scholarship funds at the Community Foundation.

But for John, who’s now living in what he calls his “bonus years”, he recently asked himself the question, “How do we perpetuate the things we believe in?”

“I believe in young people,” John says, “I believe in the future of young gay people. I believe in encouraging leadership at a young age. And having spent 20 wonderful years in Arlington, I want to maintain my connection to it and give back to it.”

After looking at the existing scholarships and talking with the Community Foundation staff, John knew exactly what he could do to perpetuate the things he believes in. “I saw AGLA has a scholarship with the Community Foundation for Arlington Public School (APS) seniors who are members of their school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). When I asked how many scholarship applicants checked ‘yes’ for the GSA box on their application, the Community Foundation told me it was several dozen. There’s a clear need for LGBTQ+ student scholarships, and I wanted to help.”

So in 2022, John opened his scholarship fund with the Community Foundation. “As a gay person in high school, I did not have the benefit of any support system,” John explains. “My scholarship is to encourage students to keep on keeping on in their work for a brighter future for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“Today, I’m so grateful to be in a position where I don’t have to worry financially, and I want to share what I have, particularly with young people who give me hope. With this scholarship, and with my life and legacy, I hope to be remembered as a generous, compassionate person.” 

Bearing John’s name, the scholarship is primed to serve as an ongoing testament to his generosity and compassion, and with an easy setup process, the first scholarship from his fund is already set to be awarded this year.

Sixty years ago, John checked “no” when asked about “homosexual tendencies.”

Today, John’s scholarship empowers Arlington students to proudly check “yes” when asked about involvement with an LGBTQ+ group.

John’s scholarship is a powerful and personal reflection of his life’s story, and with the establishment of his scholarship fund, John’s story will continue to be told “for the long haul.”

John, like so many others, looks to his retirement account as a source for tax-efficient giving. Donors can make contributions directly from their IRA accounts, known as a ‘Qualified Charitable Distribution’ or QCD, to avoid taking distributions that increase their personal income and therefore their taxes and costs for Medicare. As an added bonus, a QCD can count toward your required minimum distribution.

Contact us to learn more about scholarship funds, legacy giving, and other charitable giving strategies.

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