Gay service members are beginning to make their sexual orientation known now that the 18-year-old law prohibiting open service known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has finally been lifted from the books.
Troops affiliated with OutServe, an organization of active duty LGBT military members, touted the importance of the change during a news conference Tuesday at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters in D.C.
1st Lt. Josh Seefried, a New Jersey-based finance director for the Air Force and OutServe’s co-founder and co-director, said being able to take part fully in the military family was particularly important to him.
“That’s what the military brags about so much is having that aspect of being part of the family, being part of the team,” Seefried said. “I almost resented the Air Force for not giving me that opportunity to be part of that team, not being able to bring someone to an event. Now I feel like I can go back to work and I can be part of that team now and actually be honest.”
Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Seefried had gone by the alias J.D. Smith to avoid being expelled from military as he headed his 4,300-member LGBT organization. Now that the gay ban has been lifted, he’s free to be public with his real name as a gay airman.
Lt. Cmdr. Zac Matthews, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who’s served on both U.S. coasts as well as the Alaska and Bering Sea, similarly said he feels like “part of the family again.”
“For so many years, it’s been my partner and I on the outside looking at service members and their spouses participating in social events, being part of a network, getting together after work and on the weekends,” Matthews said. “For the first time today, I feel as though we’re part of this big, at least in my case, a Coast Guard family — and that’s a big deal to me.”
In addition to participating in OutServe, Matthews chairs Service Academy Gay & Lesbian Alumni, or SAGALA, which encompasses members from all five service academies. He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 2000.
Capt. Sarah Pezzat, a D.C.-based Marine Corps reservist who served in operations in Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia, said the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” makes Tuesday feels markedly different than previous days.
“For me, it feels different to me because I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Pezzat said. “I can post about it on Facebook, I can tell my co-workers if I want to what I did last weekend, things like that.
In 2007, Pezzat left active duty to become a police officer for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. This year, she volunteered for an active duty position in logistics at the Pentagon’s Marine Corps headquarters and is hoping to deploy again to Afghanistan.
Still, Pezzat said the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t as significant for her straight counterparts. She said one of her colleagues mentioned to her that another service member came out after the ban was lifted, but she hadn’t heard anything else.
Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Mills, a D.C.-based radio frequency transmission technician for the Air Force, said the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a “huge weight lifted” from his shoulders.
“Waking up this morning, I thought to myself no more do I have to constantly worry about ending my career because of this,” Mills said. “I don’t have to worry about lying to anyone and compromising. To me, there’s a fundamental difference.”
Mills is executive editor for OutServe Magazine. The latest edition of the online publication showcases 101 openly gay service members who have come out in the wake of the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Also present at the news conference was Jonathan Hopkins, who’s affiliated with OutServe, and Tyler Walrod, the civilian co-chair of OutServe. The only non-military member of the 4,300-large group, Walrod works on technology in San Francisco.
What do gay service members see as the next priority for the LGBT rights movement now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books. Those present at the HRC presser said they wanted to see action on partner benefits that would put gay troops on the same footing as the same footing as their straight counterparts.
Seefried said the No. 1 thing that people are concerned about in the U.S. military is partner because he said they’re “everything for us.”
“I’m in a military-military relationship and I’m set to move in the next seven months without a chance of having a joint spouse assignment,” Seefried said. “Those relationships just get torn apart. I think that that’s something most people in the military — everyone’s going to be affected.”
The Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, prevents gay service members from obtaining certain partner benefits — such as health benefits. However, the Pentagon could take administrative action to enable other benefits, such as those related to housing and legal services.
Despite the change, Matthews said he doesn’t believe the focus of gay service members will change much beyond doing the jobs to which they’ve been assigned.
“I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of people in a good mood celebrating,” Matthews said. “I think that’s a given. But I think that the bottom line is we’re all professionals and we all know that we come to work to do our job; we don’t come to work to be gay. We just are gay. And the bottom line is: we’ve been taught to work as a team to accomplish the mission.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Matthews chairs a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy gay alumni group. The Washington Blade regrets the error.