As Brenda Sue Fulton stood in the back of West Point’s Cadet Chapel on Saturday, about to marry longtime partner Penelope Gnesin, an old friend said to her, "Well roomie, did you ever think this would happen?"
“No, not in a million years,’ ” said Fulton, originally of Stuart, Fla., as she and Gnesin became the first same-sex couple to marry at West Point’s Cadet Chapel.
“It was amazing,” Fulton told The Miami Herald on Sunday. “I’m still processing all of the emotions. There were so many of our friends from the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, straight and gay. Family and friends. We had 250 people there and it was just overwhelming.”
Nadine Smith, a friend of Fulton’s and executive director of Equality Florida, the state’s largest gay-rights group, described the Fulton-Gnesin nuptials as “a big deal.”
“And yet despite her service to our country and this historic wedding at West Point, her marriage will not be recognized when she returns to her home state of Florida,” Smith said.
Fulton graduated from Martin County High School and attended West Point from 1976-80. She was among the first class of women to graduate from West Point.
“That was the the place where I first said the Cadet Prayer. That includes the language, ‘Make me choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong. And never settle for a half-truth when the whole can be won.’ That inspired us when we formed the LGBT West Point alumni, we assumed that as our motto.”
Fulton served five-and-a-half years in the Army. She served for five years in the Signal Corps in Germany, as a platoon leader, staff officer, and company commander.
In January 1986, Fulton left the Army. She didn’t want to continue hiding her sexual orientation.
“My obligation was complete,” Fulton said. “I just couldn’t continue to tell the white-lies and half-truths knowing I was gay. I left the Army as a captain.”
After leaving the military, Fulton went into the pharmaceuticals business.
Fulton, 53, and Gnesin, 52, have been together for 17 years.
“We met at a community sing at the local Presbyterian church,” Fulton said. “Penny was a choral director in her free time. I had been singing a long time. I saw her smile and I was done for. She heard my voice and came right over.”
Gnesin retired from AT&T after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The couple lives in Asbury Park, N.J.
Fulton was active in the movement to end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ She is executive director of Knights Out, West Point’s LGBT group for alumni, staff and faculty. Also, she is a founder and communications director of OutServe, an association of active LGBT military personnel.
She’s a bit overwhelmed by how quickly the gay-rights movement seems to be advancing. When ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ended in September 2011, it didn’t occur to Fulton that she would soon marry Gnesin at West Point. (New York State began allowing same-sex marriages two months before DADT ended.)
“Marriage seemed a lot farther away than service,” she said.