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Topics In the News
Pentagon Celebrates Pride
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/26/12
Last updated on: 06/27/12
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DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson.

On June 26, 2012, the Department of Defense sponsored a glbtq Pride event at the Pentagon. The event featured a keynote address by DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson, which was followed by a panel discussion on "The Value of Open Service and Diversity."

Johnson is widely regarded as having played a key role in the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He and General Carter Ham co-chaired the Pentagon working group that examined how best to implement repeal. In a December 2010 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he asked that the senators take action to end DADT before the end of the year, which they finally did.

In his keynote address at the Pride event, Johnson discussed details of the repeal. Although the 2010 working group had predicted that the repeal would go smoothly and would pose a low risk to military effectiveness, he said that the actual impact of repeal was even lower than they thought it would be.

Johnson told the crowd of approximately 400 servicemembers and civilians, "Three years ago it would have been hard for any of us to believe that in 2012, a gay man or woman in the armed forces could be honest about their sexual orientation, that the Don't Ask/Don't Tell law would be gone, and that the process of repeal would go even more smoothly than we predicted it would in our report."

He credited the ease of the change both to a higher level of acceptance among the military's rank and file than expected, and to strong leadership from the generals and admirals.

He said, "For those service members who are gay and lesbian, we lifted a real and personal burden from their shoulders. They no longer have to live a lie in the military" or "teach a child to lie to protect her father's career."

Jonson said his office is working on health care and other benefits for families of gay service members, but that the military is constrained because it still has to conform to federal laws until they are changed.

Before Johnson spoke at the event, videotaped statements from President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta praised the DoD's diversity efforts.

Following the speech, a three-person panel told stories of being gay in the military. One of them was Gordon Tanner, a retired Judge Advocate General in the U.S. Air Force and now the civilian principal deputy general counsel of the USAF.

Tanner recalled his fear of possibly being outed while he was a JAG officer. He urged every gay military member to be as open as they are comfortable being. "Why? Because we have straight allies, colleagues, and friends who support us either because it's the right thing to do or because they have family members, friends, or loved ones who are gay."

Tanner, who introduced his husband to the crowd, also stressed the importance of getting benefits for family members included in the military's legal framework.

Another panelist, Marine Captain M. Matthew Phelps said that in the course of a year he went from being a gay man "in the closet," afraid of being discharged, to a guest at the White House gay pride reception earlier this month, drinking champagne with his Commander in Chief.

Phelps said that rather than damaging unit cohesion, as opponents of the repeal of DADT said would happen, repeal actually improved unit cohesion. He said that became obvious to him during a 2007 deployment to Iraq.

"Every Saturday night, the officers used to get together and smoke cigars and watch movies. Of course, their thoughts would all drift to home and everyone would talk about their families and their wives and the letters that they got from their kids--and I sat the in the back of the room not talking to anybody.

"Not only was it so hard to have left somebody at home . . . but when everybody was getting together and growing closer as a unit, by virtue of the fact that I wasn't allowed to say anything, I was actually growing more distant from my unit," said Phelps, who now serves at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.

As the Associated Press reports, Phelps drew loud laughter when he ended his presentation by saying, "I went to work on the 20th of September, thinking my life was going to change. I sat down at my desk and I kind of braced myself on the desk, waiting for everyone to come and ask me if I was gay. And believe it or not, nobody did."

He added, "I didn't get any email. I didn't get any phone call. In fact, the phone didn't even ring. I was waiting--saying, 'Please somebody talk to me today'--because I felt like I was going to work for the very first time. For almost 10 years, Matthew was going to work as a Marine in uniform doing my job, doing the job that I thought I had been doing for 10 years, but I had only been half doing."

The third panelist was Brenda "Sue" Fulton, a member of the board of visitors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and communications director for OutServe. As Chris Johnson reports in the Washington Blade, Fulton stressed the value of the support extended by straight allies in the military who wanted to make sure the transition to open service went smoothly and gay troops were not harmed.

She described a commitment ceremony that took place over the weekend involving gay couples who served in the military. "In the back of the church . . . was another chaplain, a senior chaplain Air Force O-6, Southern Baptist," Fulton said. "I asked him why he was there and he said, 'I just want to make sure everything goes smoothly for my airmen. I just want to make sure there aren't any problems.'"

Talking Points Memo has released the following video to commemorate the Pentagon's Pride event.

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