WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday thanked gay and lesbian military members for their service, as the Pentagon prepares to mark June as gay pride month with an official salute.
In a remarkable sign of a cultural change in the U.S. military, Panetta said that with the repeal last year of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military, gays and lesbians can now be proud to be in uniform.
"Now you can be proud of serving your country, and be proud of who you are," Panetta said.
The defense chief also said he's committed to removing as many barriers as possible to making the military a model of equal opportunity.
Panetta's video message was part of a Pentagon salute to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender troops as the Pentagon joined the rest of the U.S. government for the first time in marking June as gay pride month..
It comes nine months after repeal of the policy that had prohibited gay troops from serving openly and forced more than 13,500 service members out of the armed forces.
On Friday the Pentagon announced that its gay pride event -- the first of its kind -- will be held June 26 in the Pentagon. It will feature remarks by Jeh Johnson, the top Pentagon lawyer, as well as a panel discussion of the value of gay service and diversity, with gay and lesbian service members participating.
This month's event will follow a long tradition at the Pentagon of recognizing diversity in America's armed forces. 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 whether he or she was gay.
Although some feared repeal of the ban on serving openly would cause problems in the ranks, officials and gay advocacy groups say no big issues have materialized - aside from what advocacy groups criticize as slow implementation of some changes, such as benefit entitlements to troops in same-sex marriages.
Basic changes have come rapidly since repeal; the biggest is that gay and lesbian 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 and lesbian graduates and Army cadets. Gay students at the U.S. Naval Academy were able to take same-sex dates to the academy's Ring Dance for third-year midshipmen.
Panetta said last month that military leaders had concluded that repeal had not affected morale or readiness. A report to Panetta with assessments from the individual military service branches said that as of May 1 they had seen no ill effects.
"I don't think it's just moving along smoothly, I think it's accelerating faster than we even thought the military would as far as progress goes," said Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, a finance officer and co-director of OutServe.
He said acceptance has been broad among straight service members and has put a spotlight on unequal treatment that gays continue to receive in some areas. "We are seeing such tremendous progress in how much the military is accepting us, but not only that - in how much the rank and file is now understanding the inequality that's existing right now," he said.
That's a reference to the fact that same-sex couples aren't afforded spousal health care, assignments to the same location when they transfer to another job, and other benefits. There was no immediate change to eligibility standards for military benefits in September. All service members already were entitled to certain things, such as designating a partner as one's life insurance beneficiary or as designated caregiver in the Wounded Warrior program.
As for other benefits still not approved, 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 marriage benefits because the Defense of Marriage Act says marriage is between a man and a woman.
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was in force for 18 years, and its repeal was a slow and deliberate process.
President Barack Obama on Dec. 22, 2010, signed legislation repealing it. Framing the issue as a matter of civil rights long denied, Obama said, "We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot ... a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal."
The military then did an assessment for several months to certify that the forces were prepared to implement it in a way that would not hurt military readiness. And it held training for its 2.25 million-person force to inform everyone of the coming change and what was expected.