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.