LGBT active-duty service members, veterans and straight allies celebrate San Francisco Fleet WeekEntertainment News, Online Only, Section 4A Monday, October 19th, 2015
SAN FRANCISCO– To celebrate the 35th Annual San Francisco Fleet Week, LGBT active-duty service members, veterans, and straight allies gathered at The Café in San Francisco for the first ever Fleet Week LGBT Military Mixer Oct. 10.
The event was coordinated by local LGBT military leaders as a way to thank visiting service members, discuss advancements in LGBT military equality since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), as well as raise awareness and funds for the American Military Partner Association (AMPA). The San Francisco Columbarium sponsored the event including catering, a replica Harvey Milk Niche display with keepsakes from his life and generously donated $1,000 to support AMPA.
Retired U.S. Navy Commander and Naval Academy graduate, Zoe Dunning, delivered keynote remarks. “Fleet Week is a longstanding tradition and we want to welcome our service members,” said Dunning. “We thank you for your service and are glad you came here tonight to celebrate with us.”
Dunning publicly came out of the closet in 1993 under the controversy of DADT. Her decision was met with a myriad of challenges and legal battles. Ultimately, a historic administrative board hearing granted her immunity and she was allowed to remain in service for 13 years until her retirement.
She said the decision was purposeful. “It wasn’t about me, it was about everyone,” said Dunning. “It was about trying to open up service. The reason to come out was to change the policy so people can serve their country regardless of sexual orientation.”
While serving in a leadership position with the Service Members Legal Defense Network during the repeal of DADT, Dunning said she joined dozens of other LGBT service members who carried the colorful torch toward liberty and justice across the ranks of the military. She recalled the overwhelming emotions she shared with others on the day of DADT’s repeal, Sept. 20, 2011. One person in particular was Joseph Christopher Rocha, a sailor kicked out of the military under DADT.
“If you opened up the Washington Post that day, on the front page was a photograph of me in my Navy whites hugging Joseph Christopher Rocha in the front hallway of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco,” said Dunning. “Joseph was in civilian clothes, because at that point in time, he was a civilian.”
Rocha, a former Navy dog handler was kicked out of the military under DADT after his unit faced more than 99 accounts of abuse and 20 violations of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). He was reinstated in the military after 2011, entering the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Judge Advocate General program. Dunning said the end of DADT was a monumental moment for so many young men and women like Rocha. “He wanted nothing more than to serve his country,” said Dunning. “He knew at that point in time he could reapply and get back into service.”
To a cheering audience, Dunning proudly ushered Rocha to the stage, taking particular note of the visual symbol of the repeal of DADT. “You’ll see by what he is wearing tonight, whether or not he was successful,” said Dunning.
Now a full-time law-student at the University of San Francisco and commissioned 2nd Lt. in the Marines, Rocha provided insight to the audience on the LGBT military equality changes he has experienced firsthand.
“I am very grateful to be here, in a time that you all are welcome to wear your uniforms just as proudly as your straight counterparts,” said Rocha. “I was at the tip of the DADT era and now am grateful because many of you in this room are allowed to serve in a post DADT era.”
He said he was also proud to see service members wearing their uniforms in the traditionally considered LGBT neighborhoods. “To see the uniforms in the Castro, to know that all of you are welcome and safe in the Castro, I can’t really explain what that feels like,” said Rocha.
Earlier in the day, Rocha also attended an annual SF Fleet Week event, “Bark at the Park,” in Duboce Park, which showcased military and civilian canines for the public. The event hit close to home for Rocha as he fondly recalled his time as a Navy canine handler. He said he felt a bit of nostalgia and pride that Fleet Week held and event to honor canines. “It was extremely moving,” said Rocha.
Despite the achievements felt after the repeal of DADT, Rocha said he was not initially welcomed back. He said he received a certification from the Department of Defense that he was unfit to serve. “Entering the service would be a trigger of my symptoms,” said Rocha. “They understood that I had been exposed to trauma in the Middle East and they said that serving again would be a trigger. I argued for a year that returning to service was probably the best thing that could happen to me.”
Rocha concluded his remarks by highlighting the patriotism and call to service he believes many Americans possess. “You all serve or continue to serve because you love an institution not because it was perfect, but you knew you could contribute to make it a better institution,” said Rocha.
While there was a great deal to celebrate during Fleet Week in San Francisco this year, Dunning and others in attendance took the opportunity to discuss pending DoD policy changes regarding transgender service members in the military. “We have to change the laws so that transgender service members can serve openly in the military,” said Dunning. She expressed optimism that the necessary policy changes must take effect without delay in the coming year. Moreover, when the fleet returns to San Francisco in 2016 the entire LGBT community and their allies will celebrate equality across the spectrum and finally liberty and justice for all.
Special thank you to our speakers: Zoe Dunning, 2nd Lt. Joseph Rocha, U.S. Marine Corps and our sponsors Michael Sacchetti and Mary Brown, San Francisco Columbarian, Dave Cruise, San Francisco Fleet Week, Andy Lopez, Dignity Memorial Foundation, Rick Gerharter, Bay Area Reporter, Francis Tsang, SF Mayor Edwin Lee’s office and the many community leaders in attendance.
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