CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — About 200 active-duty troops participated in last year’s San Diego gay pride parade, but they wore T-shirts with their branch’s name, not military dress.
This year for the first time ever, U.S. service members will be able to march in a gay pride event decked out in uniform.
In a memorandum sent to all its branches, the Defense Department said it was making the allowance for the San Diego parade on Saturday — even though its policy generally bars troops from marching in uniform in parades.
The Defense Department said it did so because organizers had encouraged military personnel to march in their uniform and the event was getting national attention.
Former sailor Sean Sala, who organized the military’s participation in the parade, said he wanted service members to wear their official uniform this year to show there is no longer anything to hide.
“My soul is on fire,” he said after hearing the news Thursday. “They don’t fight in T-shirts. They fight in uniforms. This is about showing who they are.”
Thursday’s move came only weeks after the Pentagon joined the rest of the U.S. government for the first time in marking June as gay pride month and made an official salute to gay and lesbian service members.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed in a video message to remove as many barriers as possible to making the military a model of equal opportunity and said gays and lesbians can be proud in uniform with the repeal last year of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.
Last year, San Diego’s gay pride parade had the nation’s largest contingency of active-duty troops participate before the military lifted its ban on openly gay service members.
Sala believes there will be no going back after Saturday. He said he has reached his dream in seeing the U.S. military sanction participation in a gay pride parade, as the armed forces have done in Canada and Great Britain.
Uniformed soldiers in those countries have marched down the streets of Toronto and London next to scantily clad men, drag queens and civil rights activists.
“I think across the country we will start seeing active-duty members in uniform march in pride parades,” Sala said.
San Diego Pride Executive Director Dwayne Crenshaw called it an historic moment.
“I think many people thought after ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was gone, discriminatory things would be eradicated,” Sala said. “But now these parades have become a very sticky subject as far as commanders using their own discretion because they are showing either a bias toward a pride parade, or the right view, which this is about recognizing who people are.”
Before the repeal, gay troops could serve but could be discharged if they revealed their sexual orientation. At the same time, a commanding officer was prohibited from asking a service member whether he or she was gay.