The North County LGBTQ Resource Center held its annual gala Saturday at the Oceanside Museum of Art.
This year’s theme was “We are Family” and it featured speakers from local government and the military as well as a performance from the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus .
Max Disposti, executive director of the North County LGBTQ Coalition, feels that having gays and lesbians serve in government helps society in general.
“It’s all about humanizing our diversity," he said. “It is a challenge to be represented in the community or serve as an LGBT member."
Marine Capt. Matthew Phelps—who was recognized at the gala for his service to the gay community—spoke about his journey being a gay officer in the military during and after the time of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell” restriction of gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces.
He grew up in an upper middle class family, earned good grades in school, and in high school played the French horn.
He later received a college degree in French horn performance, but soon realized there wasn't a lot of jobs for French horn players, so he moved to Orlando to work at Disneyworld. Phelps decided leave his job to join the military after watching the 9/11 terrorist attacks on television.
"As I sat there, I thought what I was doing in life, while it was fun, was not nearly as significant as what I should be doing.”
His first experience with the restriction came when he was signing his paperwork to join the Marine Corps. He read the Department of Defense's policy on homosexuality very carefully, because he wanted to know exactly what he was signing.
"The recruiter looked at me and said 'What is taking so long? Are you gay or not?'" Phelps was confused by the recruiter's question. "I was pretty sure it said 'don't ask.’”
The experience showed him one could get away with asking, but not telling.
Phelps decided to come out to a female colleague he felt he could trust. After a disagreement at work, she went to the officer in charge and reported Phelps' homosexuality. The officer in charge told her, "he's a good Marine, mind your own business, go home, and go back to work".
The experience caused him to stop talking about his life outside the Marines with colleagues, and being social with them.
He got assigned to the Marine Corp Recruiting depot in San Diego, but did not make any friends for fear of being turned in. He couldn't talk about his boyfriend, who was with him during the course of a deployment. As he was leaving, he was unable to kiss his boyfriend goodbye, and could only shake his hand.
On September 20, 2011, the restriction of gays and lesbians serving openly was lifted. Phelps expected Marines to ask him about his sexuality when he arrived for work that day, but nothing happened.
After a month passed, Phelps realized no one had an issue with his personal life.
"Believe it or not, who I come home to at night has nothing to do with how I do my job during the day," he said.
Phelps says LGTBQ service and being respected at work, and being more open with who they are, although he believes there are still challenges ahead for transgender service members and gender equality.
The biggest moment for Phelps came last year, during the Marine Corps birthday ball.
Phelps went to his boss for permission to take a male date. His boss told him "you know where you work, and the people you work with, but if that's what you want you have my permission". The ball was held downtown at a large hotel, with 1,800 Marines, their drill instructors, and all their dates in attendance.
"I had the best looking date,” he said. “We had a great time and everyone was really supportive.”
Phelps never thought things would turn out this way when he first joined the Marine Corps.
"I could never have imagined ten years later I would be introducing my same sex date to my chain of command,” he said.
In addition, the gala featured John Duran—a councilman from West Hollywood—who spoke about the issues of equality for members of the gay community. Duran said the gay community had a hard time early on with transgendered people.
"I thought men dressing up as women was supposed to be funny, a la Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in 'Some Like It Hot,'" he said. "I had to learn it's not about the dress and the makeup; it's about gender identity.”
Duran sees hope in the future, since "in the course of fifty years, we went from common criminals to spouses legally recognized under the law", although progress has come at a price, he added.
"We have literally played in blood: the blood of hate crime victims, those we lost to HIV/AIDS, we have had children taken from our families, been denied visitation in hospitals, been tossed out of the military, been thrown out of our churches and synagogues; we have been thrown out of our homes.”