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.
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.