Rep. Israel to push for benefits for gay veterans

Caitlyn Carlstron, 16, of Huntington with friends as Caitlyn Carlstron, 16, of Huntington with friends as they walk with a Pride Flag on Park Avenue in Huntington during the Long Island Pride Parade. (June 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

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Robert Hawkins Jr. will never forget the knock on his door 51 years ago, when he was a young Navy ensign stationed in Florida.

A Naval intelligence officer told him they had photographic evidence that he was gay. Hawkins had two choices: immediately resign his commission or face a court-martial.

Hawkins opted for an "other than honorable" discharge, losing access to vital health care benefits. Decades passed before he petitioned the Navy to change his discharge to "honorable" -- succeeding in 2010 after a two-year fight.

"I lived with that black mark on me for many years," Hawkins, 75, of Stony Brook, said at a news conference Saturday before the start of the 23rd annual Long Island Pride parade and festival in Huntington.

"I did nothing wrong in serving the Navy," he said. "I did my duty and I did it honorably."

Federal legislation to be introduced next month by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) would clear the way for thousands of other gay and lesbian veterans forced out of the military before 2009 -- when a more tolerant policy was adopted -- to upgrade their discharge status and receive full military benefits.

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"This is a historic injustice against gay military veterans," Israel said.

At the Huntington parade, marchers draped in rainbow flags danced and sang their way down Main Street. Others called for legal and cultural protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Marla Krolikowski, 60, of Bellport, said she was fired from her teaching job at a Queens prep school last year after revealing that she was undergoing a sex change. Krolikowski, who said she is suing the school, marched to encourage passage of a state bill that would strengthen job-security protections for transgender individuals.

"I worked there for 32 years," she said. "I received every award, but I was dismissed without cause."

Another parade participant, Jionni Zettavecchio, 17, of Wantagh, focused on teen bullying.

The Wantagh High School student, who identifies herself as bisexual, said abuse from her peers got so bad last year that she tried ending her life with an overdose of pills. "I want people to know that they're not alone," she said.

The parade and festival, featuring a concert from Merrick native Debbie Gibson, attracted an estimated 15,000 spectators and marchers.

In light of the Boston Marathon bombings and a spate of hate crimes against gay New Yorkers, the parade and festival had the highest security in its history, event organizer David Kilmnick said.

But Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Services Network, said the event -- which now attracts corporate sponsors and young children -- has come a long way since the first parade in 1991.

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"Every single fabric of Long Island is represented here," he said.

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