To 'Get Even' With 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' He Brought Military Float To Pride Parade

Jun 29, 2019
Originally published on June 29, 2019 8:28 am

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

In July of 2011, just two months before "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, Navy Operations Specialist Sean Sala says he felt like he had to "get even" after serving under a policy that barred openly LGBTQ people like him from the military.

To Sala, getting even meant bringing visibility to a community that had been silenced for years. In San Diego, Sala decided to coordinate the first-ever march with an active duty military contingent in a Pride parade.

"There were people that killed themselves over Don't Ask Don't Tell," he says in a 2013 conversation at StoryCorps.

Sala sat down with his friend Fernando Zweifach Lopez, an organizer at the time with San Diego Pride who identifies as non-binary. Together, they remembered the hostility they faced after registering a float for the parade.

Sean Sala, center left, and Fernando Zweifach Lopez, center right, march together at San Diego Pride on July 16, 2011.
Courtesy of Fernando Zweifach Lopez

"There I was on TV saying that this needed to happen, and I didn't tell my command I was doing that," Sala says.

"I personally wasn't prepared for the backlash that we got internally," Lopez says. "I remember two older lesbian veterans who approached me at a bar, and they told me that I was going to do so much harm."

Sala says a lot of people told him, 'You're gonna get people kicked out, what you're doing is wrong."

Lopez remembers Sala coming to them in tears. "I said, 'Look, there are always gonna be people who are gonna tell you "No." And you have to just know that what you are doing is the right thing to do.' "

The news quickly traveled. Sala and Lopez didn't expect their Pride parade participation to rally so many people.

"We're getting calls from all over the world, all over the country, and people are saying, 'I'm driving in from Florida for this,' 'I'm driving in from New York.' "

When the big day came, the military party lined up at the front to kick off the parade.

"It was sort of really just quiet in anticipation of what was about to happen," Lopez says.

Expectant parade watchers erupted when Sala's float turned the corner, he says.

"The sound of the crowd, I will never forget that. People were screaming," he says. About 200 military service members — both active-duty and retired — marched in the parade.

A particularly emotional moment came when Lopez saw a senior veteran, who was crying, stand up from his wheelchair.

"It was just so meaningful," Lopez says. "I think what so many people realize, is that's the first time they feel like they're home, is at a Pride event."

After all of the fear and backlash, Sala says it felt like redemption.

"As much as we did deal with B.S., tons of people showed up, saying 'Thank you for what you're doing,' " he says. "We got it done."

The following year, in 2012, Sala and Lopez fought for and won blanket approval from the Pentagon for all military service men and women to march in San Diego Pride in uniform.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition Saturday by Camila Kerwin.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This week for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative - a story about being seen. In the final days of don't ask, don't tell, Navy operations specialist Sean Sala decided to do what had never been done before - march with an active duty military contingent in a Pride parade. It was July of 2011, just two months before the end of the policy that barred LGBTQ people from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. At StoryCorps, Sean sat down with his friend and fellow organizer Fernando Zweifach Lopez to remember.

SEAN SALA: There were people that killed themselves over don't ask, don't tell. So I felt like I needed to do something to get even with the policy. So I registered the float and then there I was on TV saying that this needed to happen and I didn't tell my command I was doing that.

FERNANDO ZWEIFACH LOPEZ: Oh, that's right, that's right. You know, I personally wasn't prepared for the backlash that we got internally. I remember two older lesbian veterans who approached me at a bar, and they told me that I was going to do so much harm.

SALA: I did get a lot of people that were like, you're going to get people kicked out. What you're doing is wrong.

LOPEZ: You called me in tears. And I said, look; there are always going to be people who are going to tell you no, and you have to just know that what you are doing is the right thing to do. And the news just exploded.

SALA: Exploded.

LOPEZ: And we're getting calls from all over the world, all over the country and people are saying, I'm driving in from Florida for this. I'm driving in from New York. And then there we were day of.

SALA: Day of.

LOPEZ: We lined up, and then the parade kicked off and it started with the military contingent. It was sort of really just quiet in anticipation of what was about to happen.

SALA: When we turned the corner, the sound of the crowd, I will never forget that. People were screaming.

LOPEZ: I remember seeing this senior veteran in a wheelchair crying, and he stood up and it was just so meaningful. And that's, I think, what so many people realize is that's the first time they feel like they're home, is at a Pride event.

SALA: As much as we did deal with BS, tons of people showed up, saying thank you for what you're doing. I was like wow, this is redemption. We got it done.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT")

MCCAMMON: That was Sean Sala speaking with his friend Fernando Zweifach Lopez. About 200 military service members showed up that day. The following year in 2012, Sean and Fernando fought for and won blanket approval from the Pentagon for all military service members to march in San Diego Pride in uniform. Sala and Lopez's interview will be archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others, at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.