Kannon Cole, 7, watches his mother Marine Sgt. Bris Holland carry the flag… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
SAN DIEGO — Led by a Marine sergeant wearing her dress blue uniform and bearing the American flag aloft, several hundred members of the military marched in the city's LGBT Pride parade Saturday, marking the first time the Department of Defense has permitted personnel to wear their uniforms in a gay festival parade.
A crowd estimated at 200,000 whistled, waved, cheered and applauded as the service members walked the parade route through the city's largely gay neighborhood of Hillcrest, ending at the western extension of Balboa Park. All branches of the military were represented.
Some in the crowd waved tiny flags; others shouted, "Thank you for your service!" Some saluted.
Most of the military personnel wore T-shirts designating their branch of service. Four dozen — some active-duty, some retired — wore their uniforms.
Among those in uniform was Navy Petty Officer Erica Tello, 29, who has deployed as a firefighter aboard the carriers Nimitz and Carl Vinson. Her partner, Danielle Pinango, 24, who recently left active duty, stood beside her, holding their 3-month-old son, Noah.
"This is history," Tello said. "Being able to wear our uniforms says that we really are equal, at last."
After several days of indecision at lower levels, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense on Thursday authorized military personnel to wear their uniforms in the San Diego parade, provided they did nothing to bring "discredit" to the service or appear to be making a political statement.
Whether the same policy will apply to other gay pride parades has not been decided.
Many of those marching have deployed to combat zones. Several said they have partners who are deployed in Afghanistan or on ships.
The flag bearer, Marine Sgt. Bris Holland, 30, has done two tours in Iraq. Behind her was her 7-year-old son, Kannon, and her partner, Jaxs Jacquez, 30.
Although most of the military personnel were enlisted, two retired colonels — one from the Marines, one from the Army, both in uniform — were also in the parade.
Retired Army Col. Stewart Bornhoft, 65, a West Point graduate, former Army Ranger and Vietnam veteran, said the chance to wear the uniform in a gay pride parade "is what we've been working for. It says, 'It's OK to be gay.'"
Six sailors from the guided-missile destroyer William P. Lawrence were in uniform.
"We all took an oath to support and defend the Constitution," said Petty Officer Virginia Hansen, 27, whose job involves guiding weapon systems. "Being able to wear our uniforms shows that it's not just straight people who serve their country, it's all of us."
Marine Sgt. James Dunn, 24, a reservist who did two tours in Iraq, came to San Diego from his home in Montana to be in the parade with his partner, a civilian. "Finally we can stand up and be counted," Dunn said.
Military service has changed considerably since the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" rule that barred gay people from serving openly, several marchers said.
"I got an email from my admiral last night supporting my decision to wear my uniform," said Navy Senior Chief Dwayne Beebe, 38, a culinary specialist who has done multiple deployments. "That's a major change."
The military personnel were near the front of the parade, separated from the more risque contingents, including those with flatbed trucks carrying scantily clad men and women. One contingent was representing a pornographic website; others were from well-known gay bistros in Hillcrest.
There were also corporate delegations, one from a local Democratic club and one from the celebrated San Diego Gay Men's Chorus. The Department of Veterans Affairs had a van near the parade staging area, with a VA employee advising veterans about their benefits, including relationship counseling for same-sex couples.
At a modest pace, the parade took about 35 minutes to cover the route. As the military members reached the extension of Balboa Park, they stopped to pose for pictures and reflect on the historic significance of the event.
"I was just the messenger," Holland said of her role as the flag bearer. "It could have been anybody. It's been a long time coming."