Matthew Avila has been in the Navy for six years. As a gay man in the era of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” he rarely felt he could let down his guard.
“There was definitely a time when I constantly had to watch my words, every step I took,” said Avila, 25, who is stationed in Imperial Beach.
He felt the tension begin to lift last year as pressure increased for gays and lesbians to be allowed to openly serve in the military.
A crowd gathered at The Center in Hillcrest in the early evening Tuesday to celebrate the official end to DADT, nine months after the Senate voted to repeal the policy.
Avila and his friend, Jesus Torres, clutched small flags during the ceremony. Torres, a 14-year Navy veteran, soon will be training in Coronado as he prepares for his seventh deployment, aboard the USS New Orleans.
Torres has been out during his entire hitch, and faced no repercussions. What struck him about Tuesday's celebration, he said, was the idea of “freedom for everyone.”
“It's such a great occasion. It feels like the Fourth of July,” he said.
DADT was first enacted in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. The policy gained its moniker because service members were told not to ask about anyone's sexual orientation, and people who identified themselves as gay or lesbian were told not to tell.
The law was officially repealed in December and was certified for implementation July 22 by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.
Nearly 14,000 service members were discharged because of the policy. Those forced out of the service because of their sexual orientation will be allowed to reapply "and will be evaluated according to the same standards as all other applicants for re-entry," according to a Department of Defense DADT reference guide.
David Lyons, 26, served in the Navy until two years ago and is enrolled in a pre-med program at San Diego State University. Lyons, who graduated from high school in Chula Vista, is considering returning to the Navy when he finishes school.
The end to DADT will be a factor in his decision.
“The fact that this is no longer an issue makes it that much more attractive,“ he said.