Columnists » The Right View

Pride in the Armed Forces - At Last

by Shaun Knittel
Monday Jun 27, 2011

Rome, Italy was my first Gay Pride event. I was 26, newly relocated to the country, and was scared out of my mind. As one could imagine, Pride in Rome is an extravaganza.

I was scared because, at the time, I was an active duty sailor serving with a NATO command and was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of TV cameras, photographers, and would-be Youtubers, who were documenting it all. "What would happen if someone saw me on TV?" I thought. The answer was clear: I'd be booted out for violating "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the military's discriminatory policy on gays serving openly in the armed forces.

Gay Pride, at its core, is really about living 'out' loud. The constraints of DADT made it especially difficult. It actually messes with your mind. Be proud; but not too much. Show your Pride; but on the inside. Wish others a "Happy Pride;" but use your inside voice.

In 2006, when I boarded a train from Naples, Italy bound for Rome, I felt as though I could get away from the suffocating pronoun game of changing all of the "he's" to "she's" when talking with my shipmates and -- maybe, just maybe -- I'd be able to wave a Pride flag and shout out to the world, "I am gay! I am Proud!"

The truth is, I could' have. I just didn't know it at the time. Back then, I was a bit conflicted because of DADT. Not much intimidated me (boot camp and some time in the fleet will toughen you up faster than you can say "nut-up sailor!") but losing my naval career and benefits wasn't on my bucket list.

The conflict was that, up until a year later when I met the right group of gay service members -- each more different and outrageous than the last -- I had a very narrow Gay Pride worldview. I was never going to be one of those rainbow flag waving queers I saw on the news during Pride events I'd told myself years before. Yet, suddenly, in Rome, I wanted so badly to be one.

Luckily, no one saw me that year ... or the year after and the year after that. I wasn't truly able to share in the joy of Pride until I became a civilian and moved to Seattle in 2009 where I didn't have to look over my shoulder and I could live out and proud without fear of retribution.

As we inch closer towards banishing DADT onto the pages of history, I can't help but wonder during LGBT Pride Month, how good this is going to be - mental health-wise - for the brave gay men and women serving our nation. They will be allowed to wear their uniform, with medals and ribbons proudly pinned to their chest, while attending Pride events. It is feasible that LGBT moral, welfare and recreation committees and groups might form on bases around the country, and our gay soldiers will march in the Pride Parade. This is all close to becoming a reality and for that, I am filled with pride.

Examples of Gay Pride and military service can be found in some of our nation's strongest allies. In 2004, members of the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force manned a float featuring a cockpit in Manchester's Pride Festival. One year later, the Army joined as 10 uniformed soldiers paraded and manned a recruitment stall.

They were recruiting gay men and lesbians to join the military at a Gay Pride event! The ban on homosexuals in the British armed forces was lifted in January 2000. Since 2004, gay and straight service members participate in Pride events.

If you are looking for examples closer to our borders, just look north towards Canada. In 2008, 10 soldiers from across the country marched in uniform at Toronto's annual Gay Pride Parade to send a message that the Canadian military is inclusive and an equal-opportunity employer. The soldiers, just like their British counterparts, also set up a recruiting station at the festival following the parade. Canada lifted its ban on gays serving in the military in 1992. One year later, America implemented DADT.

Other examples could be found in countries like Australia, Israel, Taiwan and many of the other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Perhaps America's men and women in uniform, who identify proudly as LGB (no T yet) might march proudly in Pride parades in 2012. Visually, it would be a statement of a nation that truly is working towards its creed, that we are all equal. Mentally, it would change the game for so many gay service members who feel suffocated by the daily pressures of DADT. Allowing our gay soldiers, sailors, airman, and marines to stand up proudly and say, "I am proud to serve my country. I am proud to be gay", would be a sight to see.

Years from now, when large contingent of openly gay soldiers marches by in a Pride Parade, you'll hear someone turn to their friend and say, "Remember DADT? That seems like forever ago."

June is LGBT Pride month, and we have much to be proud of this year. If you know a gay or lesbian service member, especially at a Pride festival or parade, thank them for their service and the sacrifices they make so that we can all enjoy living out and proud as they still serve in silence.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.


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