LAS VEGAS -- Rights leaders challenged their gay colleagues to come out to straight co-workers now that "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, despite the professional and personal risks they still might face.
"There are still risks (to coming out), particularly the more junior you are," said Michelle Benecke, a former Army officer who left the service because of rules against gays in the military. "But if we're leaders, it does entail risks."
The comments came on the second day of OutServe's Armed Forces Leadership Summit, the first military gay rights conference since the repeal. Benecke, who helped found the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in response to the "don't ask, don't tell" law, said that while going public with one's sexual orientation is a deeply personal choice, more gay troops need to be open to help break down fears and stereotypes still lingering in the service.
"Our goal needs to be to make it safe for people to come out and to educate the vast middle that nothing bad is going to happen if [gays] have rights," she said.
Mike Almy, an airman-turned-activist who was dismissed from the military in 2006, said he has spoken to friends still serving who are struggling with that decision. He's encouraged them to come out slowly, without changing their approach to their work.
"Now is the time for role models and leaders," he said. "We're no different from our straight counterparts.”
Still, many gay troops worry about the repercussions. Attendees at the conference worried about the differences between being "out," being an outspoken advocate and being seen by co-workers as an activist just for sharing their personal lives.
Lt. j.g. Terry Borga, a 25-year-old commissioned in the Navy four years ago, said she has slowly begun coming out to some close co-workers. But she still hears complaints from straight colleagues about servicemembers they suspect to be gay and worries that others talk about her in the same way.
"I just want to be judged on my work, so unless I have to, I haven't really brought up my personal life," she said. "I think we'll see that go away in a few years, but it's there for now."