By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com June 26 2012 10:48 AM ET
A standing-room only crowd packed the Pentagon Auditorium on Tuesday for the first-ever LGBT Pride Month event hosted by the Defense Department, an occasion made possible by the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy last year.
Servicemembers and civilian employees gathered to hear a keynote speech by Jeh Johnson, general counsel of the agency and co-chair of the Comprehensive Review Working Group that prepared the report in 2010 concluding the risk to the military of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” was low. He reviewed the exhaustive process through which he and General Carter Ham, the other co-chair, approached their task.
Johnson conceded that as recently as three years ago, it “would have been difficult” for top leadership at the Pentagon to see open service, let alone the smooth transition that has taken place. He quoted feedback from a solider in the field that had been included in the working group’s report.
“We have a gay guy,” read Johnson. “He’s big, he’s mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.”
The audience at the event, which was broadcast live on the Pentagon Channel, broke into laughter.
Compared to civilian organizations like the CIA, which hosted a Pride event 12 years ago, Johnson noted that the occasion marked the first such reconition of Pride in the history of the Pentagon. Because “individual personal characteristics occupy a subordinate position to the mission” in the military, he said the Defense Department event held “a different and qualified place.” The focus should be to honor those LGBT servicemembers who had a burden removed “from their shoulders” and to recognize the professional way the military has adapted to repeal, he said.
As the chief legal officer for the Defense Department, Johnson is responsible for implementing the legal changes that result from “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. He acknowledged that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, creates a two-tiered system of benefits, and said that his team continued to examine what benefits could be provided to gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families within the limits of the current law. Pentagon leaders committed to study the issue after repeal legislation passed in 2010.
“Until final resolution of DOMA, adherence to the law is basic to the military and central to our efforts,” said Johnson, who called the process “comprehensive and time-consuming.”
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates for individuals affected by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, sent a letter last August to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta outlining the benefits that may be conferred within the constraints of DOMA. Areas where benefits can be provided include joint assignment eligibility for married same-sex couples, family center programs and military family housing, according to the group.
“I was heartened by his remarks, but I wish he’d been a little more specific on the benefits issue,” said SLDN executive director Aubrey Sarvis in a telephone interview following the event. “They have been working on this issue for over a year. It’s time to bring the discussion in the building on this issue to a close. It’s been a protracted discussion within the Pentagon and we’re impatient for action and resolution by the Secretary and his team.”
Panetta did not appear at the event, but his Pride message from earlier this month was played at the start of the one-hour program. In the video, he praised the progress of repeal and said, “Going forward, I remain committed to removing as many barriers as possible to make America’s military a model of equal opportunity, to ensure all who are qualified can serve in America’s military, and to give every man and woman in uniform the opportunity to rise to their highest potential.”
The Pride message from President Barack Obama was also played at the outset after a color guard presentation and the National Anthem. Pentagon brass in attendance included Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Erin Conaton, Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough and Major General John S. Patton, according to a list supplied by SLDN.
During the second half hour, a panel discussion addressed the topic, “The Value of Open Service and Diversity.” Three openly gay panelists included Outserve communications director Sue Fulton, Marine Corps Capt. Matthew Phelps, and Gordon Tanner, deputy general counsel of the Air Force. Navy Capt. Jane Campbell, director of defense press operations, moderated.
Capt. Phelps commented on the remarkable pace of change, saying that in one year, he went from being required to hide his identity at work to attending the White House Pride reception hosted by President Obama earlier this month.
“I would argue that it got better, because now you have a whole portion of the military who is able to be honest with the people that they work with,” he said. “When somebody says, ‘Do you have anybody at home?’ we can say, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.’”
Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate and member of the military academy’s board of visitors, observed that young servicemembers have easily adapted to repeal.
“We braced for impact, and it wasn’t even a speed bump,” she said. “It’s much less of an issue for this generation.”
Tanner mentioned the “laundry list” of benefits that are still needed, and he advised servicememers thinking about coming out to “stretch a little” and “be visible” in the interests of all.
“You can be the bridge,” he said. “You can be the face. You can be the friend.”