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SECDEF Thanks and Welcomes
Lesbian and Gay Service Members

Pentagon Holds LGBT Pride Event

by Denny Meyer

SECDEF Leon Panetta, photo courtesy US Dept of Defense

In mid Pride Month this past June, Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense gave a speech welcoming and thanking Lesbian and Gay service members for their service.  

With a warm avuncular smile this former Catholic School boy, Army Lieutenant, and CIA Director went through a long litany of carefully crafted phrases of affirmation. In opening, he recognized Pride Month, and thanked "Gay and Lesbian Service members and LGBT civilians and their families for their dedicated service to our country."  He noted that before the repeal of DADT, like everyone else, we served with professionalism and courage, putting the country before ourselves.  "Now," he said, "after repeal, you can be proud of serving your country and be proud of who you are."  Speaking of "equality being fundamental to the American culture," he said that sharing different backgrounds, values, and beliefs is the freedom that we defend.  "Respect and individual dignity" are the cornerstones of our military, he went on.  Leaving no stone unturned, he spoke of his "commitment to removing as many barriers as possible to make America's military a model of equal opportunity."  In closing he described diversity as "our greatest strength."

You had to listen carefully to note the distinctions made in this careful elucidation that avoided any inadvertent affirmations not included in current law.  On the other hand, the inclusion of many potent politically correct phrases suggested to me that very clever gay folk were involved in the writing of his words.  Having a highly skilled staff does not make a man cynical, however; I believe he was being genuinely sincere, yet very cleverly careful.  Had he not been excruciatingly careful, he would have been instantly lambasted from both the left and right by those watching every word for the slightest hint of inaccuracy or sins of illegitimate inclusion.

On Tuesday June 26, 2012, the Pentagon held its first LGBT Pride event in the Pentagon Auditorium packed with LGBT service members and veterans.  It began with a Presentation of Colors and the National Anthem, a startlingly proper routine formal military ceremony for the opening of the historic first Pentagon Pride celebration.  President Obama gave a televised address followed by a showing of Secretary Panetta's speech.  In person, Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department's General Counsel who was instrumental in the study and implementation of the transition process to open service, spoke at length about the deliberative decision making process involved in ending DADT, and the inequalities that still need to be resolved; noting that those inequalities trouble leaders in the Pentagon.  In describing the extensive studies done by the DoD which led to the repeal of DADT, he noted in particular the "patriotic desire" motivating LGBT service members to have volunteered.

The Pentagon program concluded with a panel of lesbian and gay active and veteran speakers, each of whom spoke eloquently about their experience: West Point graduate and Knights Out Executive Director Sue Fulton, Marine Captain Matthew Phelps, and Gordon Tanner, former Air Force JAG officer and currently the Principal Deputy Counsel of the Air Force.  Captain Phelps, who has been serving on active duty since 2002, spoke of the isolation he felt during casual evening gatherings of Marine officers during his service in Iraq, where the banter was about their families back home.  He was forbidden from speaking about his husband, thereby preventing his fellow officers from knowing who he was.  He said that the first day without the ban, September 20th 2011, was like a new beginning for him, as if he had been on his first day of duty.

For those opposed to gay rights, these events were perhaps horror movie moments signifying the end of false reality as they know it.  For those of us who have patriotically served, and for those now serving, they were significant steps on the road to equality paved with the sacrifices of people like Leonard Matlovich and the righteousness of President Obama.

For me, an old gay vet, both the Defense Secretary's speech and the Pentagon Pride celebration were a long awaited thanks that I thought I'd never hear.  I'm not now talking about the new common "thank you for serving" politesse of supporting our troops.  I'm talking about hearing clearly stated official U.S. Government recognition of our service and sacrifice.  In 2003 when I led the first AVER LGBT veterans' contingent in the NYC Pride Parade, the crowds on each block cheered so thunderously that it gave us goose bumps!  A friend, who had served in combat in Korea in 1953, flew up from Florida to march with us.  As he heard the crowds shout, "Thank You For Serving!" he began to cry.  When I asked him what was the matter, he told me, "No one ever thanked me for being a gay veteran before."  He'd waited 50 years!  If hearing gay people cheer us means so much, imagine what it means for the Pentagon and the President to hold LGBT pride events and to hear the Secretary of Defense affirm our service and thank us for it!

It made me think again of my ten years of serving in silence so long ago.  Because my family came to America as WWII Holocaust refugees, I volunteered in 1968 "to pay my country back for my family's freedom," despite being gay.  I knew from the start that I'd be sacrificing my freedom and I'd have to live my military life in a deep camouflage closet.  My friends all thought that I was nuts.  "You can't do that," they said, "you're a little faggot!"  I said, "Watch me!"  I was determined to do it.  I wasn't stupid, but I was rather naive.  It wasn't easy.  Nevertheless, I ended up reenlisting, served for ten years in two services, and left quite honorably as a Sgt. First Class.  Not bad for 'a little faggot!'

When I went through the production-line pre-induction physical on the first day, one brief moment in the process was finding myself standing in front of a psychologist who didn't bother to look up from rubber stamping his paperwork while asking, "Any problem with homosexuality?"  I said, quite honestly, "No Sir." And he said, "Next."  That was all there was to that.  I had no problem at all with who I was, so I was telling the truth.  A little while later in the process, I was one of 4,000 young men standing in their underwear; a Petty Officer stood up on a table and shouted, "All right, Mother F---ers, LINE UP; nuts to butts, I want you so close to the guy in front of you that he starts to smile; if he laughs, back off a little."  Everyone chuckled, so I did too.  And that was my first lesson in how I was going to survive serving.  I saw it as a test.  If I'd shrieked with laughter, then they would have known, "Ah, there's one... ."  I learned to laugh along with everyone else, no matter how offensive a homophobic crack was.  I wouldn't stand for any of that today; but that was the way it was back then, a year before Stonewall.

Later, when I served aboard an aircraft carrier, there was a lot of horse play among the young men sailing the high seas for weeks without women.  Two guys would be 'kidding around' and wrestle briefly on top of each other on the deck with thirty guys watching and laughing and shouting lewdly.  It was how tension was released, it didn't mean anything at all.   But, I was terrified of giving away my secret; so if anyone tried to do that with me, I shoved them away and said, "Hey I don't go for that shit!"  So, inadvertently, I got a reputation as the straightest guy around, who wouldn't even horse around for a few laughs.  So, during one of the periodic 'Witch Hunts for Queers,' the officers called me in and said, "Meyer, you're the only one we can be sure of, will you help us find these people?"  Oh my God!  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!  But, I knew what to do, and simply grunted, "Arrr, I dunno nuthin' bout that sir!"  That was the end of that.  And so it went.  But, it made me feel very lonely there at sea amidst my shipmates.  There were others, to be sure, but no one dared to smile at another sailor.  Each of us was an island, alone with himself.  In those days, if you were caught, you'd be killed in the middle of the night and thrown overboard.

I don't want readers to think that my particular experience was hell.  It wasn't.  I was having the time of my young life with the adventure of serving aboard a giant warship at sea!  Mostly, it was non stop work, everyone had a job to do and every job was vital to keeping the entire operation functioning smoothly.  Whether you were a gunner or a cook, neither could survive without the other.  There were malcontents, of course, but the way to a rewarding experience was to take pride in your work.  That was encouraged.  It takes a lot of motivation for a gay person to want to volunteer in the first place, to serve where he or she wasn't wanted.  So, we tended to do well because we were highly motivated from the start.  No one could know what drove us; so we were mostly proving to ourselves what we could do.  But there was always  the fear, at all times, that no matter how well you did your job, at any moment it could all come crashing down simply because of who you were.  Your pride in service could suddenly become disgrace and dishonor.

Now, what was unimaginable then has come true.  The President of the United States of America promised and delivered the repeal of DADT, the Secretary of Defense has welcomed and thanked us for our service, and the Pentagon has celebrated our pride in service and our pride in who we are.  It means a lot to those of us who served long ago; and it means freedom and equality for those serving now.

We are not done yet!  We still need to have full equal benefits for service members and their families and freedom to serve for transgender patriots.  But now we can be proud of our service and proud of who we are, as Secretary Panetta was clever enough to point out in nearly those exact words.

Secretary Panetta's speech may be seen at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s36Qqyb3-t0

See the hour long Pentagon LGBT Pride Event at:
http://www.c-span.org/Events/Pentagon-Marks-LGBT-Pride-Month/10737431898/
Full transcript of Pentagon LGBT Pride event: http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5070

  2012 Gay Military Signal