ARLINGTON, Va. — In a Pentagon auditorium Tuesday that normally seats 350 persons, a standing room only crowd celebrated as the U.S. Department of Defense marked “LGBT Pride Month” for the first time in its history.
On a stage flanked by the flags of the five branches of the military, Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, told the audience that there have been “almost no issues of negative effects” on the military since the September 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the former ban on openly gay service members.
In a videotaped message for the ceremony — which was also streamed live on the Pentagon‘s Television Channel and the internet, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “Diversity is one of our greatest strengths,” adding “during Pride month — and every month — let us celebrate our rich diversity and renew our enduring commitment to equality for all.”
Johnson led a panel discussion at the event, which included a look into the process leading to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“As recently as three years ago, it would have been hard for many of us, including me, to believe that in the year 2012 a gay man or woman in the armed forces could be honest about their sexual orientation,” Johnson said.
“It’s a remarkable story, and it’s remarkable because of the strength of the U.S. military and its leadership … We have the mightiest military in the world. Not just because of our planes, guns, tanks and ships. But because of our people, their ability to adapt to change, and their respect for the rule of law, their commanders and their civilian leaders.”
Johnson was instrumental in researching the effects of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and its impact on military effectiveness.
Although the rainbow Pride flag was not on display alongside the military flags, the audience of gay and lesbian service members seemed appreciative nonetheless.
“It’s a little bit surreal that the change could come so fast and that the department could be taking such positive steps,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Burton, who returned home from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan less than two weeks ago.
Burton, 44, joined the Army in 1985 right after his graduation from high school.
“To finally be able to be open and honest and recognized by the department for my service is just an incredibly fulfilling experience,” he said.
Tuesday’s ceremony at the Pentagon drew criticism from several conservative sources including Peter Sprigg, from the Family Research Council, a Washington based public-policy research group, who was quoted saying, “The military cannot make political correctness a higher priority without making combat effectiveness a lower one, this event proves that we are already moving down that slippery slope.”
Zeke Stokes, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network noted, “It’s really about recognizing that gay and lesbian service members are in the ranks and they have always been there. We can’t forget that just a year ago these service members could have been fired just for being who they are.”