Retired Col. Stewart Bornhoft has been marching in parades in military uniform ever since he first became a Cadet at the U.S. Military Academy in the 1960s. Over the years, he has also participated in several LGBT pride parades, sometimes donning a military t-shirt, over the years as well.
Still, Bornhoft was overcome with emotion as he walked the San Diego Pride parade route on July 21. For the first time in history, the U.S. Military explicitly permitted active duty service members to wear their uniforms in an LGBT festival’s parade, and Bornhoft was one of about 200 people who decided to put on a service uniform for the march.
“The applause was deafening,” says Bornhoft, who was at the front of the parade’s military contingent, right behind the American flag. “In the 235-year history of the army, this had never happened before.”
This year, the Department of Defense issued blanket approval to soldiers who wanted to wear their uniforms in the San Diego Pride parade. But there is no guarantee, particularly if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is elected, that the military would sign off on it again.
“I don’t know yet, but we are hopeful,” says Fernando Lopez, the public affairs director for San Diego LGBT Pride, when asked if service members will march in uniform again next year.
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) have already blasted the Defense department for the decision. Members of the military are prohibited from wearing their uniforms during any partisan political parade, which they say should include San Diego Pride.
“If the Navy can punish a Chaplain for participating in a pro-life event or a Marine participating in a political rally, it stands to reason that DOD should maintain the same standard and preclude service members in uniform from marching in a gay pride parade,” Inhofe wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Others argue that the San Diego Pride parade more closely resembles those commemorating St. Patrick’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Labor Day or Thanksgiving.
“We wanted people marching in uniform just like they do in any other civic parade,” Lopez said.
Following the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy last year, the defense department has made some overtures to the LGBT community. In June, it sponsored a Pride Month event at the Pentagon with Panetta and President Barack Obama.
Still, even under the LGBT-friendly Obama administration, permission for uniformed service members to appear in a pride parade wasn’t a sure bet. The Pentagon issued the one-time waiver just two days before the parade started, and it was still limited to the San Diego event. San Diego similarly garnered national attention last year when it became the first U.S. city to include an active duty military contingent in a gay pride parade, with service members marching in military t-shirts.
Prior to receiving the Pentagon’s approval, active service members individually asked their commanding officers for permission to march in uniform at San Diego Pride. Officials from Navy Region Southwest, for one, granted sailors permission to participate in uniform shortly before the full decision was made.
“Some people were getting approved and some people were getting denied,” Lopez says.
Even when marching in the parade, service members had to follow military codes of conduct for behavior while in uniform. Typically, they are prohibited from holding anything except for a military or American flag, and they have to watch what they say. During the parade, Bornhoft said he turned down several requests to be interviewed on camera because he didn’t want to violate the protocol.
Still, the sight of uniformed service members in an LGBT pride parade made a statement.
“It was hugely significant to how far we have come as a movement,” Lopez says. “Just a year ago, we couldn’t serve openly in the military at all.”