WASHINGTON - Last summer, gays in the military dared not admit their sexual orientation. This summer, the Pentagon will salute them, marking June as gay pride month just as it has marked other celebrations honoring racial or ethnic groups.
In the latest sign of change since the military repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy, the Defense Department will soon hold its first event to recognize gay and lesbian troops. It comes nine months after repeal of the policy that banned gay troops from serving openly and forced more than 13,500 service members out of the armed forces.
Details are still being worked out, but officials say Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants to recognize the contributions of gay service members.
“Now that we’ve repealed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ he feels it’s important to find a way this month to recognize the service and professionalism of gay and lesbian troops,’’ said a Navy spokesman, Captain John Kirby.
The event will follow a tradition in the Pentagon of recognizing diversity in America’s armed forces. Hallway displays and activities, for example, have marked Black History Month and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Although some feared repeal of the ban on serving openly would cause problems in the ranks, officials and gay advocacy groups say no big issues have materialized, aside from what advocacy groups criticize as slow implementation of some changes, such as benefit entitlements to troops in same-sex marriages.
Basic changes have come rapidly since repeal - the biggest that gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines no longer have to hide their sexuality in order to serve. They can put photos on their office desk without fear of being outed, attend social events with their partners, and openly join advocacy groups looking out for their interests.
OurServe, a once clandestine professional association for gay service members, has nearly doubled in size to more than 5,500 members. It held its first national convention of gay service members in Las Vegas last fall, then a conference on family issues this year in Washington.
At West Point, the alumni gay advocacy group Knights Out was able to hold the first installment in March of what is intended to be an annual dinner in recognition of gay and lesbian graduates and Army cadets. Gay students at the Naval Academy in Annapolis were able to take same-sex dates to the academy’s Ring Dance for third-year midshipmen.
Panetta said last month that military leaders had concluded that repeal had not affected morale or readiness. A report to Panetta with assessments from the individual military service branches said that as of May 1 they had seen no ill effects.
“I don’t think it’s just moving along smoothly, I think it’s accelerating faster than we even thought the military would as far as progress goes,’’ said Air Force First Lieutenant Josh Seefried, a finance officer and codirector of OutServe.
He said acceptance has been broad among straight service members and has put a spotlight on unequal treatment that gays continue to receive in some areas.
“We are seeing such tremendous progress in how much the military is accepting us, but not only that - in how much the rank and file is now understanding the inequality that’s existing right now,’’ he said.
That is a reference to the fact that same-sex couples are not afforded spousal health care, assignments to the same location when they transfer to another job, and other benefits. There was no immediate change to eligibility standards for military benefits in September.