Gays Slowly Gaining Acceptance In Military

Less than a year after the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the Pentagon holds an LGBT pride month. Advocacy groups say the transition from institutionalized homophobia to equal treatment is going well, but a bureaucracy of regulations still place gay service members and their partners at a disadvantage.

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A first at the Pentagon today, an official ceremony to celebrate Gay Pride Month. It's the first chance for the military to mark the occasion openly since the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

NPR's Larry Abramson was there.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Gay Pride celebrations often feature outrageous costumes, but the only get-ups in the Pentagon auditorium were military uniforms and business suits worn by civilian workers. The only rainbow colors were on the flags carried in by a color guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLOR GUARD AND DRUM ROLL)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR SPANGLED BANNER")

ABRAMSON: About 400 people filled the Pentagon auditorium for a buttoned down observance of a historic change. Today, gay men and women can serve openly in the armed forces. The chiefs of the military were slow to embrace that idea.

Today, top brass did not speak. The job fell to a civilian, Jay Johnson, General Counsel of the Department of Defense. He recalls that he was asked to survey many of the nation's two million service members to see if they could do their jobs alongside gay colleagues. He got feedback like this.

JAY JOHNSON: We have a gay guy in the unit. He's big, he's mean and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.

ABRAMSON: By most accounts, despite all the concern about letting gay service members serve openly, adjusting to the new rules just hasn't been a problem. Advocacy groups who fought for nearly two decades to repeal the law say they hear few complaints.

At a panel discussion, some who served remember the toll taken by years of deception. Brenda Fulton was in the first class of women to graduate from West Point in 1980. In those days, Fulton said the policy advice was, don't say anything.

BRENDA FULTON: Don't tell anyone about that first date. Don't tell anyone about your crazy, fun weekend. Don't tell anyone about your bad breakup. Don't tell anyone about who's waiting for you at home when you get back from a deployment. The Army redacted our lives.

ABRAMSON: Gay men and women in the military don't have to construct elaborate fictions to serve any longer, but they do not face complete equality. Gay partners often can not receive certain financial benefits or shop at the base exchange. That's, in large part, because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which withholds federal recognition of gay marriages.

Gordon Tanner, Deputy General Counsel for the Air Force, said he hopes these barriers will drop, as well.

GORDON TANNER: We can be one Air Force where a deployed airman can perform her mission and not have to worry about her partner and children living in shabby, off-base housing because they were ineligible for on-base military housing.

ABRAMSON: Advocacy groups say benefits issues will remain a sore point until federal law changes, but they're pushing the Pentagon to make any other changes that don't require consent of Congress.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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