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Marine recruiters reach out at gay pride event in Pasadena

The Marines set up a booth at San Gabriel Valley Pride's Community Unity Day at Pasadena City College. They were the only military branch to attend.

October 09, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Kenny Clark, 17, struggles to complete the last of many pull-ups as Marine Corps recruiter Staff Sgt. George Garcia looks on at the San Gabriel Valley Pride festival at Pasadena City College.
Kenny Clark, 17, struggles to complete the last of many pull-ups as Marine… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Marine Corps recruiters at the San Gabriel Valley Pride event at Pasadena City College on Saturday didn't care whether the young men who lined up to test their strength were gay or straight.

The Marines just wanted to see some pull-ups done properly: Place hands about shoulder width apart, palms facing away; pull upward until chin is over the bar and then slowly return to the hanging position. Repeat until the feet feel like concrete blocks and the biceps like rubber bands about to snap.

Addison Arce, 23, a slight, sinewy man who ran cross-country at Burbank High School, impressed them with 13 brisk pull-ups. "I've always been fond of the military and what they do," said Arce, who described himself as bisexual. "I've thought about joining. Whether it would be the Marines, the Navy or Coast Guard, I'm not sure." These Marines, he added, "they really know how to put on a show."

With the official repeal last month of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the Marine Corps, the service that was most opposed to ending the policy, appears to be leading the charge into new recruitment territory.

The end of the hush-hush era opens up another qualified pool of applicants, said Sgt. Monique Wallace, marketing and public affairs representative for the Marine Corps' Recruiting Station Los Angeles.

Carlos Ramirez, a board member of San Gabriel Valley Pride, said he believed that his group's Community Unity Day was the first Southern California pride event to host military recruitment. San Gabriel Valley Pride is a nonprofit group dedicated to raising awareness about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture. Other pride groups in the region, Ramirez said, had held events before Sept. 20, the formal end of the military's 17-year policy that barred gay men and women from serving openly in the military.

Whether the end of "don't ask, don't tell" will open recruitment floodgates remains to be seen. As soon as the policy was repealed last month, a top Marine recruiting trainer for the Southwest showed up at the biggest gay community center in Tulsa, Okla., bracing for insults and protests. Instead, he conversed quietly with a trickle of gay women who wandered in to ask about joining the Marines.

At Pasadena City College on Saturday, Wallace was among eight Marines at the recruitment booth. From the morning opening, the Marine contingent proved the biggest draw amid tables representing healthcare organizations, church groups and vendors of rainbow-colored garden decorations. It might have helped that the Marines handed out a lanyard, a pen or a sticker to each man who tried to do a pull-up, or to each woman who tried the flexed-arm hang. To the rare volunteer capable of performing 20 pull-ups went a navy-blue T-shirt.

Darius Clash, 19, a Pasadena City College student from Altadena, made it through 19 pull-ups with seeming ease. He had recently visited the recruitment office near campus to ask about enlisting but "I chickened out a little bit," he said. He's weighing his desire to be a film director against what he sees as a need for the sort of discipline he could get from the military. Clash, who said he is heterosexual, said it would not bother him to serve with gay or lesbian recruits.

The Marine recruiters — outfitted in dress blue uniforms with short-sleeve shirts or camouflage pants and T-shirts — offered encouragement to anyone willing to take the challenge.

"Don't stop, just one more," one young recruiter with bulging biceps said to a man who nonetheless dropped to the ground, looking exhausted.

"Just 30 more seconds," another recruiter called to a young woman attempting to hold her weight up with the flexed-arm hang.

Alan Chan, San Gabriel Valley Pride's secretary, invited military personnel in the Pasadena recruitment office across from the college to set up booths at the event. The Navy, he said, did not have adequate staffing. The Army had previously committed to another event. The Air Force did not respond. And the Marines, who alone expressed interest, nearly had to plead poverty because the branch had exhausted its funds for the fiscal year and did not have $150 for the exhibitor fee. LA/Valley Pride covered the fee, said Executive Director Paul Waters.

Pride activists found it intriguing that the Marines were the only ones to show, given how adamantly their commandant had opposed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Last December, Gen. James Amos warned that the distraction of repealing the policy could lead to risks for combat units, among other issues. But after President Obama signed the repeal into law, Amos vowed to help lead the effort and said the Marines would do the best job of implementing the change.

Tom Carpenter, a former Marine fighter pilot and a member of the board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he was impressed "Marines are leading the charge." He said the move would improve the pool of candidates strained by two wars.

"They had tens of thousands of felony waivers, and they were taking people convicted of drug use," Carpenter said. "This will increase the pool of people available and allow people who want to serve the country to join."

Carpenter said he resigned his active-duty commission as a captain in 1976 because of a ban on gays in the military. "I couldn't live a lie," said Carpenter, now a lawyer. Because he resigned, he gets no retirement pay. Through Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, he has helped keep people who were affected by "don't ask, don't tell" in the military. "We've saved a lot of careers over the last 17 years," he said.

martha.groves@latimes.com

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