On Tuesday night, for the first time in their 13-year relationship, Lt. Col. Michael Butler and his husband, Eric Astacaan, appeared together at an event on a United States military base.
The gathering inside the community center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield was hardly a major affair, but the couple said it would not have been possible without the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which had taken effect earlier in the day.
"A lot of times he would just drop me off when I'd deploy, but this is the first time we ever attended a social event together," Butler said, his arm wrapped around Astacaan's shoulder.
"This is our dating," Astacaan joked. "We got married in Canada four years ago, but in the past when we ran into someone in the community that we knew from here, we'd turn around and go somewhere else."
Butler organized the event — which drew a dozen gay and lesbian service members and their friends and family members — to celebrate the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, a 1993 policy signed into law by President Bill Clinton that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
There was no alchohol or loud music; just soda, pizza and a handful of balloons. For Butler, the important thing was to begin to create a support network for gay and lesbian airmen — one that hasn't existed during his 20-year career in the Air Force.
"We have support groups for African-Americans and women and a Hispanic heritage group," he said. "I thought it was important for us to have a place for gay and lesbian service members to go now that the policy has been repealed."
According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian soldiers, the gathering at Travis was one of only two celebrations across the country to be held on an active military base. The other, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, was sponsored by a retired admiral.
"Leadership, professionalism, discipline and respect remain the mainstays of Travis AFB, the Air Force and of all U.S. Military Services," base spokesman Jonathan Monroe said in a statement. "The Department of Defense will continue to treat all members with dignity and respect to ensure the maintenance of good order and discipline."
Astacaan, an Air Force veteran who now works as a legislative aid to state Assembly Speaker John Perez, said he was optimistic about the future.
"For the younger generation, [sexual orientation] just isn't an issue," he said. "They grow up watching Ellen DeGeneres and 'Will and Grace.' It's totally normal."
But other gay and lesbian service members at the celebration said they continued to be concerned about the military's culture, even after the repeal of don't ask, don't tell.
Some refused to give their full names for fear of retribution. Luis, who has served in the Army for two decades, said he drove nearly 100 miles to attend the gathering, but was not yet prepared to come out to members of his unit.
"There is still harassment," he said, adding that he was waiting to see if the military would begin to extend family support services, like family counseling and spiritual assistance, to gay and lesbian couples. That, he said, would be a clear signal from commanding officers that same-sex couples and families are accepted on post.
Pentagon spokespeople did not immediately respond to questions about when or whether such family services would be extended to gay and lesbian service members. But the Defense Department has already issued a directive stating that same-sex spouses of service members will not be eligible for all of the benefits extended to heterosexual couples.
In a policy memo released earlier this year, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Clifford Stanley, wrote that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, means that "many military benefits," including "medical care, travel and housing allowances," cannot be extended to same-sex couples.
But a change could be coming on that front as well. Earlier this week, Michelle Obama's spokeswoman, Kristina Schake, told The Advocate that the first lady “looks forward to including openly gay and lesbian service members in events to recognize their service to the nation, as well as the service of their families."
Meantime, Butler and Astacaan say they've already found the repeal of don't ask, don't tell liberating.
Astacaan said he changed his relationship status on Facebook to "Married to Michael Butler" and was immediately congratulated by many of his friends.
"They didn't know that we've been married since 2007," he laughed. "It's a big change."