The many different backgrounds of those who serve in the military make room for diversity, which makes the country strong, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth said at the celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month in the Pentagon Center Courtyard.
"Our differences have made us a more effective fighting force," the senator said. "Diversity leads to more problem solving and more success," she added during yesterday's event.
Duckworth was joined by retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith and by Stuart Milk, renowned global LGBT human rights activist and nephew of slain civil rights leader Harvey Milk.
"Bigotry has no place downrange. … It weakens our forces and imperils our nation," said Duckworth, an Army wounded warrior from the Iraq War.
"Who you are and who you love has no bearing on your ability to defend the country," she said, noting that it was 50 years ago when the "Stonewall" event evoked change that spilled over to make the U.S. armed forces stronger.
An uprising began June 28, 1969, when police raided the now-famous Stonewall bar in New York City, which was a well-known gay and lesbian establishment. Dozens of patrons and employees were arrested.
"If you're willing to put your life on the line for this country, and you can do the job, you should be able to serve, … no matter whom you love or how you identify," Duckworth said.
"And this past year alone, our loved ones could sleep more soundly because of the 14,700 transgender American service members who were working every day to help keep all of us safe," she added.
Monteith spoke as an advocate of LGBT rights after witnessing what he described as career airmen who were discharged from the Air Force based on sexual preference. Today, he noted, was a day to recognize and celebrate courage, the theme of the Pentagon's event.
"All of us here today share something in common," the retired general said. "We simply want to serve. We want to protect the nation that we cherish. We want to be respected for doing a decent day's work. We want to have equal opportunities because of our determination and selflessness. We want to be accepted for who we are. We want to work in organizations whose foundations are forged on an inclusive culture of dignity and respect."
Milk is the co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, named for his uncle, Harvey, who was murdered at age 48 by gunfire in 1978 while serving in public office in California, where he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. In September, the Navy will begin building the USNS Harvey Milk, Stuart said, which will be the second of the John Lewis class of underway replenishment oilers.
Harvey Milk was forced to resign and was given a less-than-honorable discharge from the Navy because he was gay, his nephew said.
"[On] the differences between tolerance and celebration, … I really think of the military as one of the best examples of the important difference between those two concepts," Stuart Milk said.
"No one defends our Constitution stronger than the U.S. military," he said.
Being allowed to serve in the military as an LGBT member should not be a partisan issue, Milk said. "Equality, justice and the celebration of all of us needs to be seen as a basic human rights issue."