- Associated Press - Thursday, June 14, 2012

Last summer, gays in the military dared not admit their sexual orientation. This summer, the Defense Department will salute them, marking June as “gay pride month” just as it has other celebrations honoring racial or ethnic groups.

The move comes nine months after repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that had 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 E. Panetta wants to honor 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“Now that we’ve repealed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ he feels it’s important to find a way this month to recognize the service and professionalism of gay and lesbian troops,” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman.

This month’s event will follow a tradition in the Pentagon, where hallway displays and activities, for example, have marked Black History Month and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

Before the repeal, gay troops could serve but couldn’t reveal their orientation. If they did, they would be discharged. At the same time, a commanding officer was prohibited from asking a service member if he or she was gay.

Basic changes have come rapidly since repeal — the biggest being that gay 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.

OutServe, 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 graduates and Army cadets. Gay students at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis were able to take same-sex dates to the academy’s Ring Dance for third-year midshipmen.

Mr. Panetta said last month that military leaders had concluded in a report to him that, as of May 1, they had seen no ill effects from repeal on morale or readiness.

“I don’t think it’s just moving along smoothly, I think it’s accelerating faster than we even thought the military would,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, a finance officer and co-director of OutServe.

The department began a review after repeal with an eye toward possibly extending eligibility, consistent with the federal Defense of Marriage Act and other applicable laws, to the same-sex partners of military personnel.

“The department is carefully and deliberately reviewing the benefits from a policy, fiscal, legal, and feasibility perspective,” Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman said Thursday.

Gay marriage has been perhaps the most difficult issue. Though chaplains on bases in some states are allowed to hold what the Pentagon officials call “private services” — they don’t use the words wedding or marriage — such unions do not garner marriages benefits because the federal Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.