The Pride month celebration at the Pentagon took on a markedly different tone this year. Once a formal event held in the building’s auditorium, the celebration on Wednesday took place outside in the courtyard and a more relaxed feel as a rock band played songs like “Celebration.”
But looming over the Defense Department’s fifth Pride celebration was a policy that has remained stubbornly in place, despite protests by LGBT advocates: the ban on transgender military service.
Delivering the keynote speech before LGBT service members and Defense Department civilian employees was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who recognized greater inclusion in the U.S. military after repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” five years ago.
“Just five years ago an event like this would have been impossible,” Mabus said. “There were those in uniform, on Capitol Hill, and in the American public who favored continuation of the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy, a policy reminiscent of ‘separate but equal.’ As one who grew up in the segregated South, I lived with separate but equal, and I can tell you firsthand, it’s not — a fact this audience knows quite well. And like separate but equal, it was insidious and morally wrong.”
Mabus said the Navy has reached out to LGBT groups to find gay, lesbian and bisexual service members given “dishonorable” and “other than honorable” separations because of their sexual orientation and update their records consistent with current policy of allowing open service.
“When we faced racial integration, when we integrated women into the service, and when we repealed DADT – every time those changes were proposed, there were naysayers insisting the force would be weakened and unit morale would decrease,” Mabus said. “And yet, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard today, the most formidable expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known, shows us that a more diverse force truly is a stronger force.”
In attendance at the event, but not speaking, was Eric Fanning, who recently made national headlines for his confirmation by the U.S. Senate as the first-ever openly gay Army secretary. Unlike last year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter didn’t attend.
Under Secretary for the Army Patrick Murphy, who as a lawmaker in Congress helped lead the effort on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, was presented an award for his leadership. An award was given to former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen for expressing support for openly gay military service, although Bert Gillott, a gay retired former master sergeant, accepted the award on Mullen’s behalf.
The Pride event comes nearly a year after Carter announced the Pentagon would conduct a review of the medical regulation barring transgender people from serving in the armed services. Although a decision was expected in the spring, the review process has apparently stalled amid internal disagreements among senior leadership.
No mention of the transgender military ban or the review was made at the event, although the individual who presented the award to Murphy was Lt. Blake Dremann, who’s serving in the Navy as an openly transgender man despite the ban on transgender service.
Jim Hatt, an Air Force Reserve officer and executive committee member of DOD Pride, said the Pentagon’s ability to host a Pride event “is absolutely fabulous,” but more work is needed.
“We aren’t where we need to be,” Hatt said. “There are still issues, the transgender issue. All things that are still going, and we know it’s not done. We know everything isn’t perfect, but we have a lot to be thankful for.”
Peter Cook, a Pentagon spokesperson, said during a news conference Monday progress has taken place on the transgender issue in recent days and expects Carter to announce something “soon.”
“The secretary challenged people within the department to try and resolve this issue,” Cook said. “And there has been progress in terms of trying to consider how to move forward here and resolve this issue in the fashion that he first outlined several months ago. And I can tell you that there have been significant conversations within the building on that front. And we expect the secretary, as he said recently, to be able to announce something soon.”
LGBT advocates recognized the lingering prohibition on transgender service in the armed forces amid the celebration of an inclusive military for gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, attended the event and in a statement expressed conflicted feelings about it.
“Today’s event was an incredibly important celebration of diversity and the strength that it brings to our nation’s Armed Forces,” Broadway-Mack said. “But while it was a time to celebrate the tremendous progress we’ve made within the Department of Defense, it was also a stark reminder of the work we still have to accomplish for full LGBT equality in the military. The continued delay in lifting the ban on open service for transgender service members is frustrating and deeply disappointing for so many of our families.”
Sue Fulton, president of the LGBT military group SPARTA, wrote in an op-ed for The Advocate she had attended the Pride celebration in years past, but skipped the celebration this year over the continuation of the trans ban.
“The Pentagon Pride theme is not ‘Gay Pride.’ It’s ‘LGBT Pride,'” Fulton writes. “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.”