Summit celebrates gains, focuses on work still ahead for gay troops
LAS VEGAS ― When the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was imminent, Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan celebrated in Kuwait by showing her commander a picture of her same-sex spouse and 4-year-old daughter for the first time.
“He looked at that photo and said, ‘Chief, you have a wonderful family ... I look forward to meeting them when we get home,’” she said. “I just smiled and was so proud.”
That pride and relief haven’t diminished since repeal when into effect last month.
But reality has set in.
Morgan’s spouse isn’t eligible for housing benefits or military health care. She can’t even get on an Army base without Morgan as an escort. The couple wants to take part in spouse-reintegration programs, but is barred from participating by federal law.
Organizers behind the Armed Forces Leadership Summit held here this weekend say Morgan’s story illustrates the need for continued lobbying on behalf of gay troops even after the end of the 18-year ban on open service by gay troops. Questions about equal benefits for same-sex couples, resources for veterans dismissed under the law, and protections against lingering discrimination still remain.
The conference ― sponsored by OutServe, a pro-repeal group that boasts nearly 5,000 gay active-duty and veteran members ― is the first of its kind in U.S. military history, since until last month, gay servicemembers could not publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation without risking their careers.
More than 200 gay and straight troops took part in the conference, which included presentations from other gay rights groups and Defense Department officials. Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and the highest-ranking openly gay civilian in the Pentagon, delivered the keynote address and a message of congratulations from First Lady Michelle Obama.
“It’s time to live by the words we have spoken so often over the last 17-plus years: Sexual orientation does not define us,” he told he crowd. “We all have the right to define ourselves.”
Much of the conference focused on military resources, and discussions that are routine for most troops but until now have been unavailable to closeted servicemembers. A workshop on deployment stress offered advice on how to stay connected with partners at home, gay or straight. A panel on finding jobs focused mostly on resume mistakes that all veterans make, and the importance of networking.
But the event also featured discussions on when to come out to co-workers, how to avoid conflict with religious conservatives, and what problems still lie ahead for gay troops.
“Inclusion without equality is incomplete,” said Sue Hyde, a director with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “There is still work to be done.”
For the rights groups, that work starts with the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions for any benefits. Both the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have already cited the law as the rationale for denying family benefits to same-sex military couples. Activists say such rulings amount to uneven and unjust compensation.
Several groups also pressed still-closeted troops to come out to their co-workers, citing the need for role models for young gay troops and apprehensive straight troops. But several conference attendees expressed lingering concerns about how they’ll be viewed by colleagues if they publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation, and what it could do to their careers.
But OutServe co-founder Josh Seefried, an Air Force first lieutenant who lobbied anonymously for months prior to repeal, said recently liberated gay troops need to be leaders for the next generation of servicemembers.
“For years, we were painted as soldiers who would put other soldiers at risk (if we served openly),” he said. “If we remain invisible, we remain at risk.”