WASHINGTON — When Capt. Matthew Phelps took command of a company at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego last July, he knew he would be fired if anyone found out he was gay.
Less than a year later, with “don’t ask, don’t tell” fading into memory, Phelps stood on stage in the Pentagon’s auditorium Tuesday and addressed a room full of gay troops and civilians, and their supporters, the latest milestone in a year filled with them.
“The president hosted a reception at his house — you know, the white one — and I was invited,” said Phelps, referencing a gay pride event held there earlier this month. “How amazing is it that in the course of a year I can go from being [potentially] fired for being who I am to having champagne with the commander-in-chief with cocktail napkins with the presidential seal on them?”
On Tuesday, the Department of Defense-sponsored gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Pride Month event was equally amazing to many of the roughly 400 people packed tightly into the auditorium.
Though there have been gay pride ceremonies and festivals in the civilian world and in the federal government for many years — the Central Intelligence Agency hosted an event 12 years ago — it was the first time such an event has been held at the Pentagon, said DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson.
Johnson, the event’s keynote speaker, said the repeal of the ban on openly gay servicemembers “lifted a real and personal burden” from the shoulders of gays and lesbians across the services.
“They no longer have to live a lie in the military,” Johnson said.
Army Sgt. Bryan La Madrid said he “had shivers down my back” on the ride down to the Pentagon from Fort Meade.
“It’s a very big moment,” La Madrid said, “a very emotional moment.”
Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a 1980 graduate of West Point and a member of the academy’s board of visitors, told the crowd that when she served, there were always things she couldn’t talk about.
“The Army redacted our lives,” she said. “Being gay isn’t about sex. It’s about life. … We can have those lives now and still serve the country you love.”
Phelps said he came out to his parents at 18, but decided he wanted to join the Marine Corps at 25 after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He recalled listening to a recruiter “stumble his way” through explaining “don’t ask, don’t tell” before asking if Phelps was gay.
“I realized at that point that the problem with the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is that it asked us to lie ... but nobody even realized they were asking us to lie.”
Later, on deployment with his unit in Iraq, Phelps said he sat in the back of the room silently while the other officers talked about the family members they had left behind.
“I was actually growing more distant from my unit,” he said.
The day the policy was repealed, Phelps said he went into work and “just braced myself on the desk, waiting for everyone to come and ask me if I was gay. Nobody did.”
And while he has found himself thrust into the spotlight several times since, Phelps said, the only thing he has done “is acknowledge the fact that I’m gay, the fact that I love serving my country and I love being a Marine. That’s it. I happen to be gay, but more importantly, I’m a Marine.”
After the event, Petty Officer 2nd Class April Rodriguez said it may just be “a pebble in the water,” but it is still a significant milestone.
“Now we don’t have to be silent anymore,” Rodriguez said.
Air Force Master Sgt. Marcus Perry said that he had yet to formally come out to the airmen in his unit, but he guessed they’d figure it out when they read about him in Stars and Stripes. He was compelled to attend the event, he said, to show support for gays serving now and those who came before.
“To come here and look at all these other people ... you see you’re not the only one,” Perry said, noting that the crowd ranged from junior enlisted all the way up to senior officers. “That says a lot.”