- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Pentagon on Tuesday saluted open gays in the ranks, with a civilian lawyer calling on fellow homosexuals to “stretch a little” and become more visible inside the military in the drive for benefits for same-sex couples.

“We need to be as visible as we can be,” Gordon Tanner, principal deputy general counsel of the Air Force, said at the Defense Department’s first gay pride event. “Let us be a bridge to our straight allies.”

The Pentagon is not providing benefits to spouses of gay service members because federal law defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

The Pentagon chose Mr. Tanner and two other gays — a Marine officer and a West Point graduate — to talk about the military during the ban on open gays, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and about the months since its official repeal on Sept. 20.

“I happen to be gay, but more importantly, I’m a Marine,” said Capt. Matthew Phelps.

Capt. Phelps told of serving in Iraq with heterosexual officers who would gather Saturday nights to smoke cigars and talk about family back home. He said he had to remain quiet in the back of the room.

“By virtue of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to say anything, I was actually growing more distant from my unit,” he said. “We hear people talk about unit cohesion and how is the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ going to affect unit cohesion. I would argue it got better.”

Since enlisting in 2002, he risked being fired. But on June 15, he was at the White House “having champagne with the commander in chief,” he said.

Capt. Phelps’ journey from being secretly gay to openly gay included taking his boyfriend to a Marine Corps ball in San Diego in November to celebrate the Corps’ 236th birthday.

Sue Fulton, who is on the board of visitors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where she graduated in 1980, told a standing-room crowd in the Pentagon auditorium that removing the ban is “not even a speed bump” at the academy.

The former Army officer is now communications director for OutServe, an organization of active duty and veteran gays with chapters at bases around the world.

“This is an extraordinary and special day,” Ms. Fulton said. “A lot of people seemed surprised that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal went so smoothly.”

After recounting the closeted gays she met during her service, she said: “So many of us knew those gay and lesbian soldiers, and we knew at the end of the day this wouldn’t be hard.”

Jeh Johnson, the department’s general counsel, talked about the pre-repeal surveys and indoctrination during which some troops predicted open gays would lead to a loss of unit cohesion and morality.

“Based on our review, however, we conclude these concerns about gay and lesbian service members who are permitted to be open about their sexual orientation are exaggerated and not consistent with the reported experiences of many service members,” he said. “In communications with gay and lesbian current and former service members we repeatedly heard a patriotic desire to serve and defend the nation subject to the same rules as everyone else.”

The celebration was broadcast on the Pentagon cable channel with the title “LGBT Pride Month Event.” The initials stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.

The Pentagon has no figures on the number of gays in the ranks and does not count them.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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