CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - The Defense Department on Thursday announced it is allowing service members to march in uniform in a gay pride parade for the first time in U.S. history.
In a memorandum sent to all its branches, the department said it was making the allowance for San Diego's gay pride parade on Saturday even though its policy generally bars troops from marching in uniform in parades.
The Defense Department said it did so because organizers had encouraged military personnel to march in their uniform and the event was getting national attention.
The move came only weeks after the Pentagon joined the rest of the U.S. government for the first time in marking June as gay pride month and made an official salute to gay and lesbian service members.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed in a video message to remove as many barriers as possible to making the military a model of equal opportunity and said gays and lesbians can be proud in uniform with the repeal last year of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law.
Last year, San Diego's gay pride parade had the nation's largest contingency of active-duty troops participate before the military lifted its ban on openly gay service members. About 200 service members last year wore T-shirts with their branch's name.
Former sailor Sean Sala, who organized the military's participation in the parade, said he wanted service members to wear their official uniform this year to show there is no longer anything to hide.
"My soul is on fire," he said after hearing the news Thursday. "They don't fight in T-shirts. They fight in uniforms. This is about showing who they are."
The Pentagon said the allowance is only for this year's parade in San Diego and does not extend beyond that. Military personnel wearing civilian clothes do not need permission to march in any parades.
The Defense Department policy says personnel cannot march in parades in uniform unless they receive approval from their commanding officers or other Pentagon-approved authorities.
Sala believes there will be no going back after Saturday. He said he has reached his dream in seeing the U.S. military sanction participation in a gay pride parade, as the armed forces have done in Canada and Great Britain,
Uniformed soldiers in those countries have marched down the streets of Toronto and London next to scantily clad men, drag queens and civil rights activists.
"I think across the country we will start seeing active-duty members in uniform march in pride parades," Sala said.
San Diego Pride Executive Director Dwayne Crenshaw called it an historic moment.
"San Diego Pride is honored to have the privilege of celebrating our country and our service members with dignity and respect," he said. "The fight for equality is not over, and it is not easy, but this is a giant leap in the right direction."
Before Thursday, several service members wanting to participate in San Diego's parade were told they could not do so in uniform. Others were granted permission by their commanding officers.
"I think many people thought after `Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was gone, discriminatory things would be eradicated," Sala said. "But now these parades have become a very sticky subject as far as commanders using their own discretion because they are showing either a bias toward a pride parade, or the right view, which this is about recognizing who people are."
Before the repeal, gay troops could serve but could be discharged if they revealed their sexual orientation. At the same time, a commanding officer was prohibited from asking a service member whether he or she was gay.
More than 300 service members have signed up to participate this year in the San Diego parade. It was unclear how many will wear their uniform.
The Defense Department said in its message to the service members that they should adhere to policy regarding behavior while wearing their uniforms.
Service members in uniform cannot appear to endorse or selectively benefit groups or individuals, provide a platform for a political message, or appear to be commercially sponsored. They also must ensure their presence in uniform is not intended to increase sales and business traffic.
Air Force Officer Joanna Gasca was among those who risked marching last year in a T-shirt. Her commanding officer had given her permission to do so this year before Thursday's memorandum was issued.
"It was absolutely thrilling last year to walk down the street," the 47-year-old Air Force recruiter said. "But this year - to be able to march in uniform - wow! I'm speechless."