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Bert Gillott, a U.S. Army Africa protocol officer who served more than 20 years in the Air Force under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, has been a motivating force in U.S. Army Garrison Italy's recognition of LGBT Pride month in June. He will host a discussion on Wednesday featuring LGBT soldiers, civilians and students.
Bert Gillott, a U.S. Army Africa protocol officer who served more than 20 years in the Air Force under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, has been a motivating force in U.S. Army Garrison Italy's recognition of LGBT Pride month in June. He will host a discussion on Wednesday featuring LGBT soldiers, civilians and students. (Nancy Montgomery/Stars and Stripes)

VICENZA, Italy — When most of U.S. Army Garrison Italy’s first-ever gay pride event was canceled last year after some parents complained they didn’t want their children “indoctrinated,” organizer Bert Gillott was frustrated.

“It makes me angry that people still think like that,” said Gillott, a retired Air Force master sergeant who spent decades hiding that he was gay. “Parents who don’t know anyone who is LGBT, they think we’re bad people.”

But he was also undeterred. The protocol officer for U.S. Army Africa put his organizational skills to work for this year’s event to mark LGBT Pride Month.

Instead of hosting an internationally known activist to speak, as was done last year, he asked soldiers, civilians and students — members of the community — to tell their stories.

The event, at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Soldiers’ Theater on Caserma Ederle, will feature a panel discussion with two gay soldiers, including one from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and two women — one a civilian, the other an officer, married to other women. The officer identifies as a lesbian; the other woman does not.

The panel will also include a gay teen and another who identifies as nonbinary, or neither exclusively masculine or feminine.

A transgender student who was to appear on the panel dropped out, despite his parents’ support, after realizing “he wasn’t comfortable telling his story in front of the community,” Gillott said.

The group will sit on sofas on stage discussing their lives in what he hopes will be a relaxed atmosphere, sort of like a talk show, Gillott said. He’ll be the moderator.

“My goal is — we have to be visible,” Gillott said. “If we’re visible, people will know us and see we’re just like anyone else.”

Before the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — which led to discharges for thousands of gay and lesbian troops, according to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network — being an open and visible LGBT person in the military was impossible.

Gillott never came out to his mother, he said. Even as she was dying and told him she was sad she’d be leaving him all alone, he didn’t tell her he had a partner.

“Who in their right mind would think that their mother would rat them out to the military? But that’s the sense of fear that was felt under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” he said.

Lt. Col. Casey Moes, the director of USARAF’s operational protection office and who’ll be on the panel, said she’d grown less fearful of disclosing her sexual orientation after an Iraq deployment. Not being open about a part of her life felt tantamount to “on a daily basis, committing a lie of omission,” she said.

“I was comfortable being fairly closeted,” Moes said. “But after Iraq, I didn’t do a lot of hiding anymore.”

Moes, the married mother of twin boys, came out publicly the day the policy was repealed. She routinely talks about her wife and children, who accompany her to various military-associated events.

“I know some people aren’t cool with it,” she said, “and I choose not to think about it.”

Parental complaints

Last year, the district superintendent of the Department of Defense Education Activity canceled talks by Stuart Milk to students at the middle and high schools who’d been given parental permission.

Milk is the nephew of Korean War veteran and gay rights icon Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay politician, who was assassinated in 1978.

Scheduled meetings with Milk and both schools’ gay-straight alliance clubs were also canceled.

Officials declined to comment on the cancellations, but teachers said that parents had complained. Some asked, “Why is the school trying to indoctrinate our kids to be gay?” Gillott said.

Milk ended up giving just one of his scheduled talks, in an on-base conference room.

It’s not clear how many LGBT people serve in the military. A 2011 RAND Corp. report estimated that 2.2 percent of men in the military identified as gay and 10.7 percent of women identified as lesbian.

A 2016 military medical study found that LGBT servicemembers “expressed concern over confidentiality and privacy, fearing that their sexual orientation would be disclosed to others outside of the medical community.”

Gillott said he finished with hiding long ago. In a transient military community where co-workers come and go, “I think I come out every day,” he said.

“We have to be visible and proud of who we are,” he said.

Same sex marriage finds support

Support for same-sex marriage among the military community remains unclear, though it has risen among the public over the last two decades.

According to a 2017 poll, 62 percent of Americans support it, while 32 percent oppose it. Younger generations are especially supportive: only a quarter of those born after 1980 said they opposed same-sex marriage, according to the poll.

Support for same-sex marriage has also grown among different religious affiliations. Two-thirds of Catholics now support same-sex marriage, as do 68 percent of white mainline Protestants, according to Pew.

It is lower but rising among black Protestants and white evangelical Protestants, according to Pew. In 2016, 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants supported same-sex marriage; 35 percent did a year later.

Political affiliation also predicts support or opposition. Among Democrats, 73 percent favor same-sex marriage, as do 70 percent of independents. But only 40 percent of Republicans do, up from 19 percent in 2008. While data for active-duty political affiliation is sparse, a 2017 Pew poll of veterans found that 56 percent identified as Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, while 40 percent identified or leaned Democratic.

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com Twitter: @montgomerynance

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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