June 26, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Gay troops tell personal stories at Pentagon Pride

The personal story of a gay service member warmed the hearts of attendees during a panel discussion at the first ever Pentagon event celebrating June as Pride month.

Marine Corps Capt. M. Matthew Phelps, who serves as a commanding officer at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego was among the three panelists who talked about the difficulties of serving in the closet before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted.

Phelps said the situation was particularly difficult for him in 2007 when he was deployed to Iraq and fellow Marines would meet on Saturday to smoke cigars, watch movies and talk about their families at home.

“I sat there in the back of the room not talking to anybody because not only was it so hard to have left somebody at home — just like it was hard for everybody else — but when everyone was getting together and growing closer as a unit, by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to say anything, I was actually growing more distant from my unit,” Phelps said.

After graduating from the University of Rochester in November 2001 with a degree in applied music, Phelps said he enlisted in the Marine Corps after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, because he felt the need to serve his country. But Phelps said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a strain on him until the ban was lifted on Sept. 20.

“I went into work on the 20th of September thinking that my life was going to change, and I went in and I sat down at my desk and I braced myself on the desk waiting for everyone to come and ask me if I was gay,” Phelps said. “Believe it or not, nobody did. I didn’t get any email. I didn’t get any phone call. In fact, the phone didn’t even ring. I was waiting — saying, ‘Please somebody talk to me today’ — because I felt like I was going to work for the very first time. For almost 10 years, Matthew was going to work as a Marine in uniform doing my job, doing the job that I thought I had been doing for 10 years, but I had only been half doing.”

Phelps was among the attendees at the White House Pride reception earlier this month where for the first time openly gay service members could participate while wearing their uniforms thanks to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Others on the Pentagon panel, which was moderated by Pentagon Director of Press Operations Navy Capt. Jane Campbell were Gordon Tanner, the Air Force’s principal deputy general counsel, and Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a member of the board of visitors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and communications director for OutServe. All three panelists — Phelps an active duty troop, Tanner a civilian and Fulton a veteran — were gay and selected by word of mouth recommendations.

Tanner said he was supposed to distribute a list of benefits available to gay troops, but opted instead to encourage gay service members to serve as openly as possible because only that can help straight allies bridge their understanding of LGBT people.

“What I really want to talk about today is what each of us can do in our own day-to-day lives to make a difference,” Tanner said. “First of all, and most importantly, we need to be as visible as we can be. Everybody has a different comfort level. Everyone is in a different place. Let me encourage you to be as open and honest as you can possibly be.”

Fulton talked about the commitment she saw from straight allies in the military who wanted to make sure the transition to open service went smoothly and gay troops weren’t harmed. She described a commitment ceremony that took place over the weekend involving gay couples who served in the military.

“In the back of the church … was another chaplain, a senior chaplain Air Force O-6, Southern Baptist,” Fulton said. “I asked him why he was there and he said, ‘I just want to make sure everything goes smoothly for my airmen. I just want to make sure there aren’t any problems.’”

The one-hour event marks the first time that a Pride celebration has taken place for Defense Department personnel within the Pentagon. This is the first Pride month to have taken place since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted from the books last year.

More than 350 attendees filled the Pentagon auditorium to capacity. The event was broadcast on the Pentagon channel and Tanner said during his remarks that troops as far away as Afghanistan were interested in watching a video of the event.

Attendees were made up of civilian Defense Department workers, service members who came in their uniforms and LGBT advocates who helped lead the way for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. The program began after service members “presented the colors” and video messages were shown from President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Delivering the keynote address at the event was Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel and co-chair of the Pentagon working group that wrote the report leading the way for legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010. He spoke mostly of the process by which he and fellow co-chair Army Gen. Carter Ham, then commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, evaluated the risk of lifting the military’s gay ban.

While they pursued the task at hand without any predetermination on whether the ban should be repealed, Johnson said the group heard stories from gay service members who were eagerly awaiting an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“In communications with gay and lesbian current and former service members, we repeatedly heard a patriotic desire to serve and defend the nation subject to the same rules as everyone else,” Johnson said. “In the words of one gay service member, ‘Repeal would simply take a knife out of my back. You have no idea what it is like to serve in silence.’”

As a result of the process, Johnson said the institution of open service in the military has brought some isolated incidents, but “almost no issues or negative effects associated with repeal on unit cohesion, including within warfighting units.”

Even during his remarks, Johnson wouldn’t reveal his personal views on LGBT rights — saying he thinks as Pride is celebrated participants should remember the military is about Americans from a variety of backgrounds coming together to serve the country.

“Within the military, events such as this must occupy a different and qualified place because in the military, individual personal characteristics are subordinate to the good of the unit and the mission — service above self,” Johnson said. “From all that we learned in 2010 about the struggles and the sacrifice to remain in the military, I believe gay men and women in uniform readily agree with this.”

Johnson also said the Pentagon is examining ways to extend additional benefits to gay troops now that open service is in place. Pentagon officials have said they’ve been looking at these possible benefits since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted last year.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and other LGBT groups have been pushing for benefits such as joint duty assignments, military family housing as well as access to certain family programs and free legal services. All are deemed by advocates to be within the authority of the Pentagon even with the Defense of Marriage Act in place.

“Going forward, the personnel and readiness community is now in the midst of reviewing which military family benefits can be extended to the partners and other family members of gay and lesbian service members,” Johnson said. “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ exposes certain inequalities between similarly situated couples in the military community. This concerns many of our leaders. On the other hand, we must comply with current law, including the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, was among the attendees at the celebration and said he wished Johnson had “been more specific” in his remarks with regard to benefits.

“It’s just taking an inordinate amount of time to bring closure on this,” Sarvis said. “So, the day for a decision and an announcement by Secretary Panetta is here. In fact, it’s overdue.”

Sarvis added the decision to extend these benefits to gay troops should be resolved “within a matter of days,” but predicted more time will pass before an announcement is made.

Despite qualms about the lingering issue of benefits, Sarvis noted the historic nature of the Pride event.

“I think for all of these things to have happened in the past year — having finality on repeal, being here to celebrate — is something that many, many people could not have anticipated, so, yes, this is very much a historic occasion,” Sarvis said. “I think a number of people here are still pinching themselves.”

A number of gay service members who attended said they were elated being able to participate in the first Pride event at the Pentagon after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Army Sgt. Bryan LaMadrid, 22, who’s gay, said coming to the event was particularly emotional for him.

“I’m stationed up at Ft. Meade right now, but I’m driving here and I’m kind of tearing up and have shivers going down my back and my neck because two years ago, you would have never imagined this, and now it’s happening this year,” LaMadrid said.

Navy Lt. Kevin Naughton, 32, who’s gay, was among those who helped plan the event and said “it was a big deal” to obtain approval from Panetta’s office to plan the Pride celebration.

“It was just an amazing process that we’ve gone through from going from repeal all the way to being able to have an event where we’re treated equally at work,” Naughton said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

3 Comments
  • I watched it Live via the web – it was awsome! Makes me more proud to have served, and then Retire from the Armed Forces…

  • I watched it in its entirety via the Pentagon Channel – it was awesome, inspirational and made me even more proud to have served in the Armed Forces and lucky to have Retired from it. I remember all those Equal Opportunity classes we sat through knowing that it never really applied to me…what an awful feeling back then. I was just coming out in 1979 when I joined the Army and I was so confused and depressed about this. I was stationed in Presidio of San Francisco of all places. I attended Church regularly back then and when I finally got up enough nerve to wait for the Chaplin after service I approached him and asked if we can talk. He looked at me compassionately because he knew I had a heavy burden… that something was really bothering me. When he asked me what was wrong, I said “I think I’m attracted to the same sex”. I’ll never forget his response. His response went like this…He raised his right arm over his head, palm facing me, and without a word he turned his back on me and walked away. I practically begged to talk…but he never looked at me or uttered a word. Despite all that I had awesome Friends in Presidio and it was one of my favorite assignments!! Today, 33 years later, I still work for the Army as a DoD civilian.

  • BRAVO Chris for noting the revealing, even odd, appearance by Mr. Johnson. By devoting so much of his time to regurgitating details about “the study” already known to everyone in the room, he effectively turned it into more of a “Pentagon Pride” event, praising what THEY had done for gays, than the intended LGBT Pride celebration, not only not ever saying HE approved of repeal but also not once coming close to what his boss, Secretary of Defense Panetta did—“personally thank[ing] all of our gay and lesbian service members, LGBT civilians, and their families for their dedicated service to our country.” It could be said he even contradicted Panetta—and, again, the supposed reason all were there—in fact, as you noted, virtually declaring that the Pentagon SHOULDN’T do the same kind of events that other federal government agencies have done for years [and the DoD could have done for LGBT civilian employees long before DADT repeal]. “[I]n the military, individual personal characteristics are subordinate to the good of the unit and the mission, service above self.”??? Then, how does Johnson explain the millions of taxpayer dollars spent over the last 41 years by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute on programs to “maximize combat readiness” by “fostering positive human relations throughout diverse armed services” CELEBRATING differences in race, gender, ethnicity, and religious and political affiliation. How about the events in May for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month for the military, February was African American/Black History Month, March was Women’s History Month, April observed Holocaust Remembrance Day, or that in September the DoD will recognize Hispanic Heritage Month, and National American Indian Heritage in November? How about the posters distributed each year to U.S. bases and ships around the globe celebrating these events as well as Ramadan, Bodhi Day, and even Wicca Yule?

    It was also telling that Johnson did not say “I WAS not an activist on the matter of gay men and women in America”? And that he didn’t actually say he felt badly that his gay “good friend” was afraid to come out to him 27 years ago—or describe what he’s done since to assure him he isn’t homophobic TODAY. Perhaps he isn’t, given that he said, “We ARE all a product of our circumstances, and part of my circumstances INCLUDE my formative years in the 1970s at Morehouse College, an all male, all black, Southern Baptist school.” How much more obvious could his real feelings be than in the fact that he didn’t say that HE is one of “many of our leaders” “troubl[ed] that there are “certain inequalities between similarly situated couples in the military community”? Note, too, he didn’t say that ALL “military family benefits [will be] extended to the partners and other family members of gay and lesbian service members” in time, but that they’re simply studying “WHICH” ones. And, how ridiculous was his closing declaration, contradicting what HE had acknowledge just minutes before, that nongays had “welcome[d] their [gay] brothers and sisters to an UNCONDITIONAL place at the table”? There are MANY “conditions,” and indisputable documentation that Johnson was at least one of the chief architects.

    That’s where the debatable attempts to read his mind end, and the FACTS of his transparent stall tactics and duplicity, both in the past and yesterday, begin. For despite his Big Lie yesterday that they are still working on identifying benefts, he truth is that that study he co-authored and published OVER A YEAR AND A HALF AGO, in November 2010—the “Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—ALREADY identified benefits that are NOT banned by DOMA—and how to implement them. From page 142:

    “[O]ur Terms of Reference required that we consider the issue of benefits for same-sex partners and the families of gay and lesbian Service members, in the event of repeal. …We studied the issue carefully, and no other policy recommendation came close to consuming as much time and
    effort.”

    And their lengthy investigation included one of the most crucial benefits—which the marvelous gay panel member, Air Force Deputy General Counsel Gordon Tanner specifically called out yesterday—access to base housing. From page 144 et al., of the study:

    “In this category are benefits that are *NOT statutorily prohibited, because Congress has not explicitly limited the benefit in a manner that precludes same-sex partners, but that current regulations do not extend to same-sex partners. For these, the Department of Defense and the Services have the regulatory flexibility to define the eligible beneficiaries in way that includes same-sex partners. … Military family housing is another prominent benefit in this category. … For benefits such as these, the Department of Defense **COULD legally direct the Services to revise their regulations to extend coverage to Service members’ same-sex partners. This could be accomplished in two ways: leave to the Service member the freedom to designate his or her ‘dependents’, ‘family members’, or similar term; or, revise these definitions to specifically
    mention a committed, same-sex relationship, and require some type of proof of that committed
    relationship. The latter is similar to the approach now being taken in Federal agencies for civilian
    employees. … We do **NOT, however, recommend that military family housing be included in the benefits eligible for this member-designated approach. Permitting a Service member to qualify for military family housing, simply by designating whomever he chooses as a “dependent,” is problematic. Military family housing is a limited resource and complicated to administer, and such a system would create occasions for abuse and unfairness.” [*emphasis mine; **emphasis theirs]

    How did Mr. Johnson and his subordinates define “unfairness”? By suggesting that it would be unfair to deny unmarried straight couples such access but allow unmarried gay couples—dodging the fact that, even in 2010, legal marriage was available to gay service members through some states. WHY then; why NOW when that number has increased?
    Another issue that Tanner emphasized was the ongoing failure to support gay military spouses and their families. AGAIN, Johnson’s team identified those IN 2010, yet vetoed them. From page 145 et al:

    “Other benefits and support services that may be suitable are, for example, programs and services provided by the Department of Defense family centers, which include mobility and deployment assistance, relocation assistance, and crisis assistance. Expanding the eligibility for these benefits and programs COULD BE ACHIEVED by modifying the definition of ‘family member’ in DoD policy and regulations to permit Service member designation. … we do NOT, at this time, recommend that the Department of Defense and the Services revise their regulations to specifically add same-sex committed relationships to the definition of ‘dependent’, ‘family member’, or other similar term, for purposes of extending benefits eligibility.” [emphasis mine]

    Again, they dodged answering why they could not at least be changed for those gay service members who ARE just as legally married as straight couples from, e.g., Massachusetts, New York, or DC, tellingly, instead, commenting about how “controversial” marriage of gays still is, and bleating “unfairness” again re unmarried straight couples even as they admitted: “We realize this is different from the direction the Federal government is taking for civilian employees to address the disparity in benefits available to married opposite-sex relationships and committed same-sex relationships.”

    They also absurdly parroted the old canard of the Antigay Industry about gays not deserving so-called “special rights.” Maybe this is because Johnson shockingly agreed to meetings with SEVEN different CIVILIAN antigay groups including Focus on the Family and the so-called Center for Military Readiness AKA Elaine Donnelly. I don’t recall the military meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan when planning racial integration.

    In sum, despite recent insufferable praise of Johnson by co-opted Gay, Inc., mouthpieces, his remarks yesterday, coupled with his history of fighting any court ruling that the ban was unconstitutional—even questioning the military’s OBLIGATION to obey such court rulings—and the fact that such benefits COULD have been extended nine months ago—as well as also lifting the ban HE engineered on including gay service members under the protections against harassment and discrimination of the Military Equal Opportunity Program—only reinforced that, at best, his support of repeal was extremely reluctant—and that he remains a part of the problem of achieving full equality in the military not a part of the solution. When are our paid leaders going to seriously challenge him?

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