Tom Daley
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Why I’m Not Going to Pentagon Pride

PENTAGON PRIDE

In 2012, I was proud to take the stage as part of a panel at the first LGBT Pride event ever held at the Pentagon. After a video greeting from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Jeh Johnson (then the Department of Defense General Counsel) spoke about cochairing the Comprehensive Review Working Group that studied the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. Then Capt. Jane Campbell welcomed three openly gay panelists: Mr. Gordon Tanner, Marine Captain Matthew Phelps, and me. 

There was a sense of nervousness in the audience — and a dearth of stars on the uniformed attendees. Generals and admirals had shied away. Gay and straight service members shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

I started off with one of my favorite stories: After graduating West Point and finishing the Officer Basic Course and Airborne School, I arrived at my first unit — and promptly met Specialist Sixth Class Ronnie Riley, a personnel sergeant for my unit. He was six feet tall, dark-skinned, Latino, a Southern gentleman, and the fiercest, most fearless, flamboyant, flaming queen you’d ever want to meet. Everyone adored him. He could fix anything in the personnel system. Captains, majors, and colonels all relied on Riley when they needed to fight the complicated military human resources system. 

When he crossed my path, he’d flounce a salute at me with a wink and top it off with “How you doin’, ma’am?” No one cared. He was awesome. Even the crusty old sergeant seemed unfazed by his flamboyance: “That’s just Riley,” he would say.

“You’ve all known a soldier like Riley,” I reminded the crowd as they relaxed into laughter. ”And you relied on him. That’s why [DADT] repeal is no big deal.”

I've attended Pride at the Pentagon each year since then. Wednesday marks the Pentagon’s fifth Pride event, and the theme this year is “Celebration.” Since the DADT repeal became official in 2011, we’ve gained marriage equality in every state, so gay/bi military families are on an equal footing; we’ve had general officers come out; and we’ve gained an openly gay Secretary of the Army. These are all signs of remarkable progress.

But the Pentagon Pride theme is not “Gay Pride.” It’s “LGBT Pride.” It’s been almost a year since Defense Secretary Ash Carter stopped discharging transgender service members and announced a review of the Pentagon’s policy, expecting resolution in six months. We at SPARTA, along with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Palm Center, have answered every question posed to us. We’ve addressed every scenario. And still we wait.

In the past month, President Obama at the Air Force Academy, Vice President Biden at West Point, Secretary Fanning in his Capital Pride speech, all emphasized changes to our Armed Forces that have made us stronger: integration in the 1940s, expanding roles of women, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They echoed Carter’s previous remarks that “anyone who is qualified to serve should be allowed to serve.” That widening of diversity allows us to leverage the best talent. And so our transgender troops wait, as they put their lives on the line.

The organization I help lead, SPARTA, has more than 400 transgender members actively serving in the U.S. military — representing some 13,000 total transgender service members. They are infantry soldiers, medics, Marines, pilots, security police, West Point cadets, drill sergeants. If the Pentagon’s event was themed “Progress,” I could agree. But “Celebration”? As thousands of transgender service members wait in limbo? That I cannot support.

Not while an Air Force colonel tells his doctors to deny medical care to trans airmen. Not while a trans man drill sergeant has to force his lean, muscled, post-mastectomy body into a woman’s uniform. Not while a feminine trans woman nurse is disciplined because she failed to correct patients that called her “ma’am.” Not while the dignity of transgender service members — and veterans — is being denied every day.

So I won’t be at the Pentagon on Wednesday. To every lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender military service member and DoD civilian: I am grateful to you, and I hope that June 8 is a proud day for you. And I will continue to fight on for my transgender brothers and sisters in uniform... because we leave no one behind.

BRENDA SUE FULTON
BRENDA S. “SUE” FULTON is a West Point graduate and former Army officer. She currently serves as president of SPARTA.

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