by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Whenever a parade turns 40 years old, there's bound to be some traditions that carry with it. Such is the case for the Seattle Pride Parade.
There's the Dykes on Bikes, the dancing GSBA businessmen and women with their briefcases, and one group that literally stands out in front and sets the tone for the parade: The Color Guard.
Seattle Gay News caught up with some of the members of the Color Guard to talk about its history and what parade revelers can expect to see June 29 at the Seattle Pride Parade.
Ron Rasmussen, a former United States Air Force Captain (1977-1989), organizes and participates in Color Guard. 'Often I carry the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) flag, which is especially significant, because the U.S. was the second-to-last country in NATO to authorize Gays and Lesbians to serve in the military openly and honestly without regard to sexual orientation,' he told Seattle Gay News.
'The Color Guard in the Seattle Pride Parade offers parade-watchers a Norman Rockwell-style moving tableau, conveying GLBT military history and timeless tradition,' Rasmussen told Seattle Gay News. 'Because the Color Guard carries many flags, including the Rainbow flag, the Color Guard sets the tone for commemoration, celebration, and moving forward into the future, with colorful flags and colorful personalities.'
Rasmussen is a member of Veterans for Human Rights (VfHR), a group that was incorporated in 1993 as a public benefit corporation, organized and operating under the laws of the State of Oregon. He told Seattle Gay News that from the mid-1990s through 2010, the Color Guard was organized and provided by American Veterans for Human Rights/Puget Sound Chapter. 'I participated with them in Color Guard for many of those years,' he said.
When that group went defunct, Portland-based VfHR has, since 2012, organized and provided the Color Guard for the Seattle Pride Parade. In addition, VfHR has done the Color Guard for the Portland Pride Parade each year since 1996.
Rasmussen says that while the Color Guard for the Seattle Pride Parade for 2004 and 2010 were especially poignant; 2012 was 'especially celebratory: the first parade after the end of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'
'Because individual members of the Color Guard are GLBT U.S. military veterans, as well as guard and reserve and active military, each person can readily understand that we are no longer second-class citizens and unwanted patriots,' he explains. 'Individual participants routinely report feeling a sense of determination, dedication, pride, character, and service to others, all magnified by the cheers of the thronging crowds on parade day.'
'When I participate in Color Guard, the second line of the Declaration of Independence rings like a carillon of bells in my mind: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' said Rasmussen.
There's another Color Guard volunteer who believes, like Rasmussen, that the membership of the marching unit should be lined with individuals that believe in the declaration of independence and fight for what is right. You may recognize the name Geoffrey McGrath as the embattled openly Gay Scoutmaster of the 98th Rainier scout group from Seattle, Washington. Currently McGrath is fighting the Boy Scouts of America for no longer recognizing the troop as an official part of the organization after they learned he was Gay.
Last week at the Portland Pride Parade, for the first time in the nation, Scouting units from the BPSA (Baden-Powell Service Association) lead the nation by participating in the parade with their unit banners - units from the 55th Cascadia of Portland, Oregon, accompanied by the Group Scoutmaster from the new 98th Rainier scout group from Seattle, Washington, said McGrath.
'This year in Seattle is different, in that for the first time in the nation here in Seattle we are marching with unit flags (flags representing individual units of the BSA) - specific Packs and Troops have asked their flags be flown in support of the LGBT community, and as a commitment that the discrimination will end here, today, with us, and that forevermore these units will stand in mutual support and defense of their LGBT members, and will provide equal dignity to all,' McGrath told Seattle Gay News.
Last year, the Chief Seattle Council and the Boy Scouts of America separately declined the request for a color guard at Seattle Pride, stating 'Providing a color guard in a Gay pride parade is going to be perceived and could suggest an endorsement of homosexuality and homosexual behavior. Such endorsement - be it active or passive - is not permitted,' wrote Richard John Mathews, General Counsel of BSA, in a June 5, 2013 letter to McGrath.
In the next paragraph it stated the general rule: '[U]niformed unit members and leaders may participate in flag ceremonies at political events and may lead the Pledge of Allegiance; however, they should retire after the ceremony and not remain on the speakers' platform or in any conspicuous location where television viewers could construe their presence as an endorsement or symbol of support.'
'While I respect BSA's legal right to selectively refuse this courtesy, I want to urge them to remember their moral obligation to act equally towards all community organizations,' McGrath told Seattle Gay News. 'With the BSA's vote last year to allow openly Gay youth, we feel it is important to engage and support our newly accepted community of Gay youth. What message are we sending to these youth, if we don't? Together, Ron Rasmussen and I believe that the mutual exchange of courtesies and normalization of relations without making special exceptions will allow civil society to mend the harms caused by years of exclusion of openly Gay youth and adults in Scouting.'
McGrath believes it is the right of the LGBT community to expect a display of the national symbols, provided by the military, police, fire, or Boy Scouts that form a Color Guard, just as it is done in any other parades. 'By doing so, these systems in turn begin to respond better to the needs of the LGBT community,' he said. 'It opens channels of communication and normalizes relationships. It is part of becoming the center of American life, rather than forever existing on the fringe.'
'The crowd really responds to these visible displays of our national symbols - it can be very healing and normalizing, just as when religious groups, PFLAG, or other typically 'straight' groups, march in Pride with their banners,' he said. 'It communicates 'we're here, we are you.' This is us - we are our community, staking our claim in equal dignity.'
Because of BSA's continuing discrimination against LGBT adult participation as volunteers or as employees, it is necessary to communicate to the audience messages such as 'It STILL isn't OK to be Gay in the BSA,' said McGrath.
'This is a particular message that is needed to get out - to help make it clear even to an awkward 12 year old who is thinking about coming out to a trusted adult, that their Scoutmaster is not a guaranteed safe place to talk about his concerns,' he said. 'The BSA still has a discriminatory and homophobic stance that doesn't allow anyone over 18 to participate who is Gay. We want to make it clear that we are marching to end this discrimination and to demand equality.'
As same-sex marriage now becomes legal, state by state, backed up by the Supreme Court ruling, and President Obama is signing legislation to end discrimination in the public sector, McGrath says, 'we still have a long way yet to go to end discrimination in the private sector, which is how the BSA gets away with this hurtful stance.'
'It is for these critical messages - national pride and equal dignity as well as safety considerations for our Gay youth - that ask that our Color Guard lead the parade,' he said. 'It makes a bold statement for everyone.'
'As a member of the color guard, whether Gay or straight (and we are both!), I feel overwhelmed by the response of the crowd - the love we feel extended towards us reinforces our feeling in a beautiful heterodyne, and bonds us tightly together in allegiance to each other,' he concluded.
All LGBT Military Veterans, Guard/Reserve or Active-Duty Military are cordially invited to join Veterans for Human Rights for this year's Color Guard for the Seattle Pride Parade on Sunday morning, June 29 at 4th Ave. & Union St. Parade steps off promptly at 11 a.m. www.vfhr.org or call Ron at 360-896-9394 (9 a.m.-9 p.m.). (If leaving a voice message, please state your phone number slowly and clearly.)
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