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Local military who marched in gay pride parade receive mostly warm reception

Jaime Rincon, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, did something on Saturday very few other Marines -- or any other military members -- have done.

He was one of hundreds of active duty and retired military personnel who marched in San Diego’s gay pride parade. Organizers believe this was the first time in U.S. history an active military contingent participated in a gay pride event.

Although the decision to march was groundbreaking, and somewhat controversial, Rincon and other local military personnel said they received a supportive reception from their colleagues after the event.

Rincon was back at Camp Pendleton on Sunday, and said while he was visiting a friend in base housing he ran into some Marines he did not know.

“As soon as they saw me, they said, ‘Dude, we saw you on the news,’” Rincon said. “They told me I did a great job and represented the Marine Corps very well.”

Because of the continued legal wrangling over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the federal policy prohibiting openly gay and bisexual people from serving in the military, it was not completely clear there would be no repercussions for active duty service members who marched, said Sean Sala, a former Navy member who organized the parade’s military contingent.

A day before the parade, a federal appeals court temporarily reinstated the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but said military members could not be investigated, penalized, or discharged under it.

This lack of clarity prompted the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops, and several other prominent gay rights groups to discourage the march, Sala said.

The Service Members Legal Defense Network warned gay and lesbian service members that as long as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still on the books, participation in the parade meant assuming a certain level of risk, said Zeke Stokes, the organization’s spokesman.

Until the policy’s repeal is officially certified, there is still some risk of participating in these events, he said.

But Sala, a former Navy amphibious assault operations specialist who was honorably discharged June 30, said even with “don’t ask, don’t tell” still technically on the books, he was confident his colleagues could not be prosecuted. However, he said the soldiers who marched in the parade could not wear their official uniforms because the military prohibits wearing uniforms at political events.

Instead, the soldiers, sailors and Marines wore t-shirts emblazoned with their service branches. Rincon wore a camouflage-green “Marines” shirt and tied a Marine Corps flag around his neck like a cape.

Sala said he now plans to meet with Congresswoman Susan Davis to ask her to support legislation allowing uniformed military contingents to participate in gay pride parades.

Some active duty service members who decided to march on Saturday were also afraid for how they would be received by their fellow soldiers, Sala said.

“These are the bravest people I have ever met in my life, they have hearts of lions,” he said.

Rincon, who had only told close friends he is gay, said he was nervous about his reception from other Marines, but was pleasantly surprised.

“I got a text message saying, ‘I never knew this about you, but don’t think it’s going to change how I feel about you, and I’m so proud of what you’ve done,’” he said.

Now Rincon, Sala and other service members who joined the march will forever remember the event, which they said is a part of history.

Rincon said the moment the group turned onto Sixth Avenue would always be etched in his memory.

“We were so excited, and as we walked together, we were all screaming,” he said. “I thought we were loud, but as soon as we made that first turn, the crowd started screaming their lungs out, and I broke out in tears.”

After the parade, Sala gathered the group in Balboa Park.

“I told them when they lay their heads down that night, they can be sure they changed American history,” he said. “This was a groundbreaking moment in the gay rights movement, and is a sign the military has evolved into a truly equal opportunity organization.”

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