San Diego gay pride march to feature active duty military

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 15, 2011 9:53 PM
San Diego gay pride march to feature active duty military

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A weekend gay pride parade in San Diego will feature a large contingent of active-duty and retired military personnel, opening service members to possible discipline in the waning days of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," organizers said on Friday.

The 350 current and former service members expected to join Saturday's San Diego LGBT Pride parade will be the largest such group taking part in the annual event, marking an unprecedented display of pride by gay men and lesbians in the military, sponsors said.

"They don't wish to rebel against the military. They just simply want to be honored," said organizer Sean Sala, 26, an openly gay former Navy operations specialist who left the service in June after six years.

San Diego, California's second-largest city, has a large military presence with a naval base and the nearby Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton.

This is the first time the city's gay pride parade has featured a contingent of active-duty military personnel, said Frank Sabatini Jr., a spokesman for the event. He added that it may be a first for large numbers of active-duty service members anywhere in the United States.

Sala said about 70 percent of the military contingent in the San Diego parade will be on active duty. But they will not wear uniforms, in keeping with military policy that forbids wearing a uniform at such events, he said.

The San Diego march comes as the military nears the end of a 18-year policy barring openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces.

Since it was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has resulted in the expulsion of more than 13,000 service members for revealing their sexual orientation.

At least one legal group is warning active-duty personnel they risk military discipline if they come out as gay in the parade.

President Barack Obama signed into law in December a repeal of restrictions on gays in the military. But the Pentagon was given unlimited time to implement the sweeping change. In the meantime, the Defense Department has continued to enforce "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

In a legal ruling that seems likely to speed up the process, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld a lower-court decision declaring "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" unconstitutional and ordered the military to immediately lift its restrictions. The military said it would comply.

But Zeke Stokes, a spokesman for the gay rights group Service members Legal Defense Fund, said openly gay service members risk discharge should the courts grant an Obama administration request to temporarily reinstate the policy.

"Right now, we're urging service members to err on the side of caution until we have absolute finality and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is off the books," Stokes said.

Gay service members have been known to march in other pride parades, but usually in a low-key manner without calling attention to themselves, he said.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)