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SAN DIEGO — Crisply dressed in his bright white Navy uniform, Navy Senior Chief Dwayne Beebe stood out among more than 350 service members cheered on by the rainbow-bedecked crowds that lined six-deep Saturday along the route for the annual San Diego LGBT Pride parade.
When Beebe stopped at an intersection and got down on one knee to propose to his boyfriend, the parade nearly came to a stop as other sailors and military troops surrounded the couple as Jonathan Franqui said yes.
"It was amazing, really," Beebe, who drove with Franqui 30 hours from their Pensacola, Fla., home to attend the gay pride parade, said after the parade. "This is one time. This is history."
"I was, like, exhilarated inside," he added.
Beebe, in a fortuitous move, had packed his dress whites for the vacation trip even though he wasn't sure if he would be able to wear it marching in the parade as an active-duty service member. But as the couple drove to San Diego, they learned the Defense Department gave a one-time exception to a longstanding policy that bars military troops from wearing uniforms in public, non partisan parades.
Beebe, a 20-year veteran and experienced culinary specialist now stationed in Pensacola, had notified his boss, an admiral, the night before that he would be marching in the parade. It was more a courtesy than a requirement, however.
Conflicting decisions by military commanders who got requests from subordinates to wear uniforms in public apparently prompted the Pentagon this week to review its policy, and a July 19 ruling allowed troops to wear their uniforms, but only for the San Diego parade.
The decision to wear uniforms was personal for each service member, and about half of the military marchers did just that.
With the DADT repeal last year, "it was (about) civil rights. This year, the fact that people could come in uniform, it's about personal empowerment," said Sean Sala, an activist and former Navy operations specialist second-class petty officer. "It's a landmark day."
"You see a lot of novelty firsts," added Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, a Washington-based national gay military group.
Whether the Pentagon would extend similar exceptions to the uniform rule for other events isn't certain.
"I don't see how they could stick to that," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, who was walking through the large post-parade fair at San Diego's historic Balboa Park. Davis, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she supports allowing troops wear their uniforms at pride parades and represent themselves individually, "absolutely."
Parade organizers put the troops near the front of the parade, which stretched along a two-mile route through San Diego's gay-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood and ended at Balboa Park.
Banners hailed each of the services, all which were represented. Most of the service members who did not wear their uniforms instead sported T-shirts proclaiming their branch of service.
While the massive crowds were supportive, a small anti-gay religious group stood along the parade route on University Avenue bearing signs proclaiming "Repent" and "Homo Sex is a Sin." They largely were muffled by the surrounding crowds that seemed to get louder as each marching group drove by.
Capt. C.J. Jose said he was proud to have marched in his Air Force service blues, and he was warmed by the receptive crowds.
"It's amazing how everyone is so supportive," said Jose, 29, an electronics warfare officer who traveled from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., and joined other airmen marching in the march.
Although he was already out to his squadron, he initially wasn't sure if he would march in uniform. "There was a little bit of hesitation when (the DoD decision) first came out," he said. His boyfriend of four years, R.J. Wilkinson, 25, joined him in the parade.
Jose was one of several military officers, including one Army colonel and one Marine Corps colonel, marching in uniform in the parade. But despite the DADT repeal, some service members still are wary of outing themselves as homosexual to their units or commands.
"I still feel the Marines still have that kind of bigotry," said Robert, a corporal in the Marine Corps reserves and stationed in Northern California, who asked to be identified only by his first name. Robert wore a gray T-shirt that proclaimed "USMC" and said he would have marched in uniform if he knew about the Pentagon's decision before he left home.
Still, he's unsure about going so public and telling his Marines that he is gay. "I probably could, and they probably couldn't care," he said. But he admits he feels "just a slight hostility." "It's the fear of not knowing what's going to happen," he added.
"Everybody is different," said a senior airman, who marched in the parade and asked to be identified as Patrick L. "I still am not fully out. I think it's better that you gradually come out to somebody you know first, and see if you're OK with it."
The pride parade gave some troops the perfect opportunity to step out in public and show the public that they are proud of their military service.
Senior Airman Sergio Chavira, 21, was deployed last year and missed out on joining in San Diego's parade, "so this is my chance."
Chavira, a military policeman stationed at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., hasn't had to hide his sexuality for the past year or so. "I came out to my squadron, and a lot of people really didn't care," he said.
With the DADT repeal, more troops are feeling the freedom, and personal relief, of being able to be comfortable discussing their personal life or even having their partners join in unit activities, but it's not always easy.
"Everybody has to find the right time and place," Jose said.
Gay service members say obstacles remain, largely from other people's strong personal views against homosexuality or their discomfort around the subject.
Former Sgt. Christine Sheehy didn't really talk about her sexuality before she left service last year after four years in the Marine Corps, although some Marine friends and colleagues knew about her personal life. And those she did tell, "they were more supportive than you think," said Sheehy, 22, of Oceanside, Calif., who helped carry the "Marines" banner in the parade.
But, she added, "there was still a barrier. Some people still don't want to come out. Even with the law, that still doesn't change the people around you."
Those attitudes were stronger when Chuck Hirst, of San Diego, wore his eagle, globe and anchor. The Korean war-era Marine had to keep his homosexuality under wraps during the four years he served, although there were times he was deployed at sea on Navy ships when colleagues literally "looked away." Over the years, he lost two partners to AIDS.
He's heartened to see that gay troops today can step out and admit who they are without fear of retribution.
"I think we are headed in the right direction," said Hirst, wearing a gray USMC T-shirt and, at 82, as slim and fit as any Marine. "A lot of people don't like this idea, but we are born this way."