Army Nurse Corps Captain Angela Shrader sat with her arm around her female partner of 20 years in a Pentagon auditorium and marveled at the occasion.
“In my lifetime, I never thought this would happen,” said Shrader, 47. who has served in the military for 13 years. “To be able to come dressed in my uniform with my partner and be open, I can’t tell you how excited and proud I am.”
She was among more than 350 gay and lesbian service members and their supporters who overflowed the auditorium yesterday as the Pentagon celebrated “Gay Pride Month” for the first time.
After decades of culture wars and legal challenges, the Pentagon ended in September its 18-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that had barred gay service members from revealing their sexual orientation.
Repeal of the policy, approved by Congress in December 2010, made it possible for the Defense Department to honor “openly gay service members who defend our country with honor and integrity,” as President Barack Obama put it in a videotaped message played at the event.
Obama is seeking gay and lesbian votes in his re-election campaign, citing repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as well as his more recent support for gay marriage.
The change in Pentagon policy took effect last year after Obama and military leaders certified the Defense Department was prepared.
The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said last week that letting gays serve openly is now a settled issue and that he won’t try to reimpose the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“That’s not something that I would personally bring up,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California said at a June 21 defense writers’ breakfast.
The Gay Pride ceremony at the Pentagon drew some critics.
“The military cannot make political correctness a higher priority without making combat effectiveness a lower one,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a public-policy research group in Washington. “This event proves that we are already moving down that slippery slope.”
An estimated 66,000 gay and lesbian troops are on active duty, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides legal assistance to gay military personnel. Before the repeal, more than 14,000 had been discharged for being gay since 1993, when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was adopted.
“It’s a little bit surreal that the change could come so fast and that the department could be taking such positive steps,” said Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Todd Burton, who returned home to Arlington, Virginia, from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan less than two weeks ago.
Burton, 44, joined the military in 1985 right out of high school.
“To finally be able to be open and honest and recognized by the department for my service is just an incredibly fulfilling experience,” he said.
June is known as Gay Pride Month, when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters hold parades and street festivals in major cities across the country.
While other federal agencies have held Gay Pride events for their employees for years, the Pentagon never acknowledged gay employees within its ranks because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that was adopted as a compromise by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
The military celebrated this year on its own terms. There were none of the rainbow flags, colorful costumes or festive music that accompany festivals in cities such as New York or Washington.
Like many other military events, the ceremony began with the presentation of colors and the national anthem. Gay military and civilian defense employees spoke about the sense of fear they faced for years.
“The problem with the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is that it asked us to lie when no one even realized we had to lie,” said Marine Captain Matthew Phelps, who enlisted at the age of 25 and did a tour in Iraq. “By virtue of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to say anything, I was actually growing more distant from my unit.”
The ceremony made clear that “gay and lesbian service members are in the ranks and they have always been there,” said Zeke Stokes, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “We can’t forget that just a year ago these service members could have been fired just for being who they are.”
Since coming out to his colleagues in September, when the ban was lifted, “I have had nothing but positive responses,” said Burton, the Army National Guard lieutenant colonel. “It’s just not an issue.”
Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, told the audience at the Pentagon that there have been “almost no issues of negative effects” on the military since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was scrapped.
“This is the first time in history such an event has occurred at the Pentagon,” Johnson said. “For those service members who are gay and lesbian, we lifted a real and personal burden from their shoulders.”