As DADT Ends, LGBT Group Comes Out Of The Closet
MELISSA BLOCK, host: Under "don't ask, don't tell," many gay people have served, and continue to serve, in the military but remain in the closet. Maintaining this cover has been challenging, and thousands have joined an underground support network called OutServe.
As Tim Fitzsimons reports, with the end of "don't ask, don't tell" just weeks away, OutServe itself will be coming out of the closet.
TIM FITZSIMONS: It's Thursday night and like always, Washington, D.C.'s gay sports bar, Nellie's, is packed. But the crowd - well, there's a few more guys sporting the classic high and tight military haircut. Why? It's Active Duty Thursday, a social meet-up and fundraiser hosted for gay military members.
Events like this are pretty new, and they're still not common. So if you're one of the estimated 65,000 gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, where do you turn for support when most of the others are still in the closet?
J.D. SMITH: (OutServe) We came up with the idea to create OutServe to start connecting active-duty gay and lesbians using hidden social media.
FITZSIMONS: That's OutServe's head, J.D. Smith. Search for him on Facebook, and you'll find a picture of a soldier's shadow in front of an American flag. Political views: equality. Favorite quotations: We will win. And his name?
SMITH: J.D. Smith is a pseudonym I've adopted over the past year to avoid being kicked out.
FITZSIMONS: That's because he's an active-duty military officer, and Smith says being gay once nearly cost him his career.
SMITH: An instructor found out I was gay and was changing my test scores and was harassing me. And I turned him in and, you know, I was outed to my command. And I was removed from my job for a little bit, and that's what made me turn around and start OutServe.
FITZSIMONS: OutServe's social media component aims to give gay and lesbian military members a place to organize, communicate about issues, and feel a little less alone. Since forming last July, the private online group has attracted over 4,000 members.
Like all people who serve their country, gay service members face unique challenges. The usual roster of complications like family issues, relationship troubles and even PTSD are amplified by the difficulty of hiding your sexuality.
Former Army Captain Sue Fulton is an alumna of West Point's first female class and an OutServe board member. She says the ability to connect is critical.
SUE FULTON: I know of an officer who was down range in Iraq. She was in an MP unit that was getting blown up, and found out her partner had cancer - by email - and couldn't tell anybody. You've got to be able to connect with people who will support you through those kinds of things and help you get through. And I think that is part of the tremendous value that OutServe brings.
FITZSIMONS: When the Pentagon studied the possible impacts repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would have on the military, it consulted various groups both for and against. But it also consulted OutServe just months after the group was formed. Fred Sainz, a vice president of the largest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, says this was because OutServe had something the rest didn't.
FRED SAINZ: There are going to be concerns and conflicts that are going to exist for active-duty service members, and only those who are still active duty can rightly address. And that's the very unique role that OutServe plays.
FITZSIMONS: While the social media component of OutServe will remain hidden, the group's leadership is already shifting gears from its role as an underground network to that of an association.
Next month, it will publish issue three of its magazine and in October, the group will host a conference in Las Vegas. The CIA has even signed on as a sponsor. Fred Sainz sees a broadening role for OutServe.
SAINZ: Their role will now become even more critical in that they are going to live with this legislation, and its impacts on gay and lesbian service members, every single day. And that is essential - to have someone that truly can represent those points of view as a partner and then as a successor to this issue.
FITZSIMONS: For proof, look no further than the group's leader, J.D. Smith. I ask him for his real name, and he tells me to check back on September 20th. Until then, "don't ask, don't tell" is still the law of the land.
For NPR News, I'm Tim Fitzsimons in Washington.
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