AP EXCLUSIVE: Pentagon to Mark Gay Pride Month
WASHINGTON (AP) - Last summer, gays in the military dared not admit their sexual orientation. This summer, the Pentagon will salute them, marking June as gay pride month just as it has marked other celebrations honoring racial or ethnic groups.
In the latest remarkable sign of change since the military repealed the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, the Defense Department will soon hold its first event to recognize gay and lesbian troops. It comes nine months after repeal of the policy that had banned gay troops from serving openly and forced more than 13,500 service members out of the armed forces.
Details are still being worked out, but officials say Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants to honor the contributions of gay service members.
"Now that we’ve repealed ’don’t ask, don’t tell,’ he feels it’s important to find a way this month to recognize the service and professionalism of gay and lesbian troops," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman.
This month’s event will follow a long tradition in the Pentagon of recognizing diversity in America’s armed forces. Hallway displays and activities, for example, have marked Black History Month and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Before the repeal, gay troops could serve but couldn’t reveal their orientation. If they did, they would be discharged. At the same time, a commanding officer was prohibited from asking a service member is he or she was gay.
Although some feared repeal of the ban on serving openly would cause problems in the ranks, officials and gay advocacy groups say no big issues have materialized - aside from what advocacy groups criticize as slow implementation of some changes, such as benefit entitlements to troops in same-sex marriages.
Basic changes have come rapidly since repeal - the biggest that gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines no longer have to hide their sexuality in order to serve. They can put photos on their office desk without fear of being outed, attend social events with their partners and openly join advocacy groups looking out for their interests.
OutServe, a once-clandestine professional association for gay service members, has nearly doubled in size to more than 5,500 members. It held its first national convention of gay service members in Las Vegas last fall, then a conference on family issues this year in Washington.
At West Point, the alumni gay advocacy group Knights Out was able to hold the first installment in March of what is intended to be an annual dinner in recognition of gay and lesbian graduates and Army cadets. Gay students at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis were able to take same-sex dates to the academy’s Ring Dance for third-year midshipmen.