26 Jun 2013

Hagel hails gay pride at Pentagon

As the US awaits a decision on gay marriage by the Supreme Court, the US military celebrates gay and lesbian troops at a special Pentagon event.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (pic: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

There were no rainbow flags. Only the stars and stripes hung proudly. Fancy dress costumes were substituted for smartly turned out uniforms. Colourful strings of beads were absent. In their place instead were military badges of honour, writes Rebecca Tyers.

While Tuesday’s Pentagon Pride event was a more muted affair compared to a typical LGBT event it was no less significant.

Since the repeal of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy in 2011 the US military has ramped up its attempts to integrate its lesbian and gay service members.

In his opening address at Pentagon Pride, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried to live down his unsupportive past by praising LGB troops.

“Our nation has always benefited from the service of gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Now they can serve openly, with full honour, integrity and respect.”

Whilst Hagel is keen to move on from “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”, the policy that barred openly gay, lesbian and bisexual persons from military service – for some the memory is still palpable.

Major James Adams (pic: Channel 4 News)

James Adams, a major in the US airforce reserves, told me about his life serving his country from the closet: “It was very difficult. For 28 years there was a constant fear of being found out and being discharged, not being able to serve. I couldn’t talk to my family for fear I’d put them in a bad position. My brother and my nephew are both airforce officers and I didn’t want them to be put in the awkward position where they’d have to report me.”

For Major Adams, Pentagon Pride is a huge positive step in the right direction.

He said: “This is incredibly important. This is a celebration for me that I can let people know I am a gay serviceman and my past 28 years of honorable service have really been that.

“Now I can date and don’t have to worry about ‘Oh, I can’t say that’. Now I can serve openly and let people know ‘Yes, I’m gay'”.

In further evidence of the changes the US military has gone through, lesbian and gay servicemen are now coming out at all levels of command.

Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith, the highest-ranking openly gay military figure, was given a standing ovation at the ceremony.

She came out last August and this year sat next to her wife at Pentagon Pride. The key spokesperson at the ceremony however was Eric Fanning. Last week openly gay Fanning became acting chief of the United States Air Force and has vowed to fight against inequality. In an interview with the Washington Blade he said: “Wherever we can root out discrimination, I think it’s a positive thing,”

In her speech at the event on Tuesday, Special Advisor to the President Valarie Jarrett described the repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” as “one of the most significant civil rights accomplishments of the president’s career.”

However that could be about to be topped. On Wednesday the Supreme Court will return its decision on same sex marriages making it possibly the most important day in US gay civil rights history.

Depending on the ruling, gay and lesbian troops and their spouses could be afforded the same marriage rights as their heterosexual colleagues.

But there is a long way to go. For example transsexual and transgendered people are still prohibited from serving in the US forces.

The Supreme Court ruling could be that last push forward the US military needs to cross the final civil rights barrier.

Rebecca Tyers is based in Washington for Channel 4 News