CHICAGO (CBS) — Just one year ago, military personnel dared not talk about their sexual orientation for fear of being kicked out of the service.

But now, thanks to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, gay and lesbian soldiers and sailors have been told by top brass that it is OK to be out and proud.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Grzanich reports

“As we recognize Pride Month, I want to personally thank all of our gay and lesbian service members,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a videotaped message released last week. “You can be proud of serving your country and be proud of who you are when in uniform.”

In addition to the video, the Pentagon will host a Pride Month event on June 26 with a keynote speaker followed by a panel discussion on the “The Value of Open Service and Diversity.” The Pentagon has a long history of recognizing diversity in the military and holds special events for Black History Month and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

“I always knew when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended it would be a non-event but I certainly didn’t expect to see an announcement for a Pentagon Pride,” said Bridget Altenburg of Chicago, an Army veteran who had to do a double take when she saw Panetta’s video.

According to Altenburg, this is further evidence that openness is spreading through the ranks of the military. A graduate of West Point, Altenburg had two deployments to Bosnia and served as an Army engineer. She now works with the group Out Serve, which supports openly gay military personnel.

“It’s a new day and you are now welcome to serve in any capacity that you can in the military and we need everyone’s talents whether they’re gay, straight or transgendered to help make America stronger,” said Altenburg.

With a very different tone being set at the top, Altenburg expects gay life in the military to be about the things that really matter to members of the military family, including honor, service and pride.

“What I am seeing is that people coming out and people who want to be out are able to be out and feel their units and their commanders embrace them or just say this isn’t an issue.”

Evidence of that will come on Sunday, when 25 openly gay sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago march in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade with the blessing of their commander. That’s a first in Chicago and possibly even the nation.

The sailors are members of a group called G.L.A.S.S. or Great Lakes Area Gay, Lesbian and Supportive Sailors. The group was formed after the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, is sanctioned by the military and meets on the naval station base. It’s believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

The group will have the seventh position in the parade lineup, according to founder Petty Officer Ann Foster. For the first time, she says military personnel can be proud of their military service and openly show their gay pride at the same time.

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