© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

Sean Sala, (left) and Fernando Zweifach Lopez at StoryCorps in San Diego in January 2013.
Luis Gallo for StoryCorps
Sean Sala, (left) and Fernando Zweifach Lopez at StoryCorps in San Diego in January 2013.

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In July of 2011, just two months before "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, Navy Operations Specialist Sean Sala says he felt like he had to "get even" after serving under a policy that barred openly LGBTQ people like him from the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
Courtesy of Fernando Zweifach Lopez
Sean Sala, center left, and Fernando Zweifach Lopez, center right, march together at San Diego Pride on July 16, 2011.

"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 forWeekend EditionSaturday 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, atStoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Kerwin