gay_flag_lede.jpgAn array of uniformed service members and city officials celebrated the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay people at a ceremony in front of the War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco today.

“Today is a historic and monumental day,” said retired U.S. Navy Commander Zoe Dunning in the first of about a dozen speeches by the officials.

The repeal of the 18-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect at 12:01 a.m. today.

The 1993 policy barred military officials from asking about service members’ sexual orientation, but required the discharge of those who declared themselves to be gay or engaged in homosexual activity. The repeal was enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama last year.

Dunning, wearing her dress white Navy uniform, said, “I’ve never been prouder to wear my uniform to represent my country than I am today.”

Dunning, of San Francisco, declared herself a lesbian shortly before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect in 1993.

The Navy sought to discharge her, but she successfully fought the action by arguing that her statement referred to her status and not to conduct. The Pentagon later barred that defense in other cases, but Dunning was able to remain in the Navy until she retired in 2007.

“I no longer have to be a spokesperson for other gays and lesbians in the military,” Dunning said. “They can speak for themselves now.”

More than 14,000 gay and lesbian armed forces members were discharged under the former policy, according to Servicemembers United, a gay military organization.

Mayor Ed Lee said, “Today we have the opportunity for people to serve to their full potential for the country.”

Former Navy Petty Officer Joseph Rocha, 25, of San Francisco, served for three years in Iraq and Afghanistan as a handler of dogs detecting explosive devices, but was discharged in 2007 after he announced he is gay.

He said he has now finished college at the University of San Diego and is applying to rejoin the military at the Marine Officer Candidates School in Virginia.

“We who love our country and the armed forces were going after a policy that tarnished our country,” he told the gathering.

Rocha said the call to serve in the military is “sort of like a religious calling.”

“Some of us are called to the uniform, some of us are called to service to our country,” he said.

The celebration was sponsored by four gay advocacy and military groups: the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, of which Dunning is co-chair; American Legion Alexander Hamilton Post 448; the San Francisco LGBT Community Center; and the Association of Actively Serving LGBT Military Personnel.

Several speakers cautioned that additional battles remain to be fought in the quest for equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

“It is a day of celebration, but it is just one more step in the struggle,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who cited the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage as additional hurdles.

State Assembly member Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said, “If anything needs a dishonorable discharge, it should be Proposition 8.”

Chris Bowman, a Vietnam veteran and member of Log Cabin Republicans, said, “We need to make sure the repeal is fully implemented.”

Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles in 2004 to challenge the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and won an injunction from U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips last year blocking enforcement of the policy.

The injunction was stayed for a time during the government’s appeal, but in July–after the policy repeal was enacted but before it took effect–the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the military to stop discharging openly gay people.

The U.S. Justice Department has now asked the appeals court to dismiss the case as moot, but the court has not yet acted.

In the meantime, Bowman told the gathering, Phillips’ ruling last year “was the thing that pressured Congress to get off the dime and pass the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.'”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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