Among the thousands decked in rainbow colors and glitter in Portland's Pride parade on June 18, one lone airman was marching in his official military camouflage get up: Tech. Sgt. Nathaniel Boehme. He was marching with the parade's color guard, second in line behind the "Dykes on Bikes," carrying Oregon's state flag. He also marched in uniform in Seattle a week later.
That might elicit a "so what?" on the surface, but wearing the official military uniform at a Pride parade is rare, if unprecedented in the Pacific Northwest. It's believed to be the first time that an active service member received approval to appear in uniform at a Pride parade in Oregon or Washington.
"To my knowledge — and I've done a pretty exhaustive query — I don't think anyone else in Washington or Oregon has received this approval to wear a uniform in the Pride parade," Boehme says.
Active military aren't allowed to do so without permission from their commanders — not an easy feat. Boehme already had tried to get permission multiple times in previous years, and even initially this year, without success. It took engaging the adjutant general (TAG) of Oregon, Maj. Gen. Michael E. Stencel after the denial this year. Stencel is the state's top military commander of more than 8,100 soldiers and airmen.
Next thing Boehme knew, he had received an email from Lt. Gen. Gina M. Grosso, the deputy chief of staff for Manpower Personnel and Services at the U.S. Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. The email granted him approval.
"That night I found out ... I teared up a little bit. They've done it; they allowed it. For me, it was an indicator of the Air National Guard's commitment to equity and diversity and community, truthfully," he says.
The gesture is symbolic, he says, because people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender and queer actually serve in the military at high rates, and Portland has the second highest rate of LGBTQ-identifying people outside of San Francisco.
"So we're a big community," he says.
Boehme, who is gay, lives with his partner in Portland, and served in the closet for years during "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — the policy that barred openly gay people from serving in the military until its repeal in 2011. He's a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, who is still serving in Oregon's Air National Guard. Enlisting shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he served in Iraq during 2005-06, with Operation Iraqi Freedom, and during Saddam Hussein's trial for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Now, in addition to serving in the Air National Guard, Boehme is the LGBTQ veterans' coordinator with the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs — another unprecedented first, making headlines when the position was created by the Legislature in 2015.
Boehme understands the regulation around military uniforms and when they can be worn.
"It's with good reason," Boehme says. "When we wear the uniform, we are representing the military and United States. It reflects on our services and nation as a whole."
The military doesn't want uniforms worn at certain political rallies or marches, "which may imply Air Force sanction of the cause for which the demonstration or activity is conducted," according to the Air Force manual.
"That was the interpretation — that the Pride parade was a political march, rather than a celebration or a community event," Boehme says. "So in my memo, as exception of policy, I focused on the community nature of the Pride parade, and especially that Pride Northwest and Seattle Pride folks, they are both federally designated 501(c)(3) (nonprofit organizations) that are actually federally designated not to participate in political events."
Boehme noted that he might've had trouble if he were vying for the Pride event in Los Angeles, which evolved into a "Resist" march.
Going forward, he's hoping to work with Portland Pride organizers to create a military-veteran contingent, or a group for veterans and currently serving military members (who would have to get approval from their chain of command) to participate in their own part of the parade, similar to other officials like police, beyond marching with the color guard. He says that's already being done in San Diego and Long Beach, California.
Given Boehme's track record so far, it seems likely.
"It (Pride parade) was an absolutely phenomenal experience — both times. ... It's humbling," he says.