SAN DIEGO — Sean Sala felt so elated when Congress approved repealing the military's ban on openly gay troops the 26-year-old sailor went on TV and revealed his sexual orientation publicly in what he calls his "Rosa Parks moment."
Now the former Navy operations specialist, who finished his service last month, is organizing what is believed to be the first military contingent of hundreds of active-duty troops and veterans to lead a gay pride parade. The group will march Saturday in San Diego's parade, the nation's fifth largest.
The national Servicemembers Legal Defense Network – representing gay and lesbian active-duty military personnel – said they told Sala they are warning members that it is still a risk to come out as long as "don't ask, don't tell" is on the books.
"We communicated to him that anyone who participates is assuming a certain level of risk," spokesman Zeke Stokes said. "We are looking forward to a time when LGBT service members can participate in these kinds of actions without any risk."
Sala said it's time for the gay and lesbian community to stop hiding in fear.
"This is not in any way a violation of military policy and it's time for the country to move on – plain and simple," he said.
Cpl. Jaime Rincon, 21, a Camp Pendleton Marine who plans to participate, said he is grateful Sala gave him the opportunity to march as a military member in a gay pride event.
"Finally someone is stepping up to the plate, someone has said: `We're done hiding. Let's do something about this. Let's show everybody we're proud of who we are and we're proud of our branches of service,'" he said.
The Pentagon has said the military will not discharge anyone under the policy, for now, to comply with a July 6 federal appeals court order telling the U.S. government to cease enforcing the 17-year ban. Marine Corps officials said service members who are not in uniform are within their rights to participate in a gay pride parade.
But Stokes said going public now could be used against military personnel later if the military starts enforcing the policy again. The Department of Justice has filed an emergency motion asking the court to reconsider its order, saying ending the ban now would pre-empt the "orderly process" for rolling back the 17-year-old policy as outlined in the law passed and signed by the president in December. Pentagon officials have said they expect the ban to be officially lifted soon.
Sala said the parade group will be made up of gay and heterosexual service members in a show of unity.
The troops and veterans will wear T-shirts showing their branch of service. They will walk with two horses – one draped in an American flag and the other with the rainbow-colored Pride flag – to honor service members and those who have died for equality, Sala said.
Some will accompany a half-ton military vehicle as audio equipment belts out "Taps" and military fight songs to the expected crowd of thousands. They also will hold a 30-foot American flag and a banner with the military crest on it.
Gay Pride marches nationwide have been focusing on the repeal of the military's ban but this will be the first with active-duty troops participating as an identifiable group, gay rights activists say.
Denver's PrideFest in June was themed "These Colors Don't Run" to honor gay and lesbian service members, and its grand marshal was the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which had a discharged military officer represent it. Some parades have featured floats covered with photos of fallen gay troops with their faces blacked out.
Sala said the group's presence will send a strong message that the nation is at the end of an era of discrimination.
"People (service members) are flying in from out of state to be in this because they believe `don't ask, don't tell' never should have been instituted," Sala said. "It's about humanity and coming to honor military troops regardless of their sexual orientation in a pride parade. It's finally able to happen."
Outing himself was a therapeutic and moving experience, a release of years of pent up feelings of anger and humiliation at having to hide a part of his identity, Sala said.
Sala said he spent six years feeling paranoid that any misstep would mean the end of his career.
He would skirt questions about his weekend plans. He remembers lying in his bunk on a Navy ship off the coast of Iran, feeling despair there was a law forcing him to keep his life secret. So in December when the Senate approved repealing that law, an empowered Sala agreed to an interview on CW6, a San Diego TV station.
The next day he felt the stares from his fellow sailors. He expected the worst from his captain, a conservative Christian, who called him into his office.
"He told me, `I don't care. I never cared. You're an excellent leader,'" Sala recalled. "It was very moving."
Sala was amazed at the sense of lightness that overtook him.
"It burns away at your soul...to just constantly feed people false pretenses just to protect yourself," he said.
After the initial shock, his fellow sailors congratulated him for his courage, Sala said.
"It created a tremendous amount of unity," he said.
He finished his service June 30 and plans to study politics.
Sala said he hopes the government will sanction a military presence in next year's pride event, just as the armed forces have done in Canada and Great Britain, where uniformed soldiers have marched down the streets of Toronto and London next to scantily clad men, drag queens and civil rights activists.
"We've gone from instituting pure discrimination to instituting equality, which is amazing," he said. "I'm wondering why repeal is taking so long. I say many of those who are still against this have never even put on a uniform."