Air Force Lt. Talks About Coming Out To Colleagues

Air Force Lt. Josh Seefried was one of an untold number of American service members forced to conceal his sexual orientation under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Seefried talks with Lynn Neary about coming out to his colleagues Tuesday — following the policy's repeal — without fear of official repercussion.

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LYNN NEARY, host: More than 13,000 members of the military have been discharged from service as a result of "don't ask, don't tell," but thousands more stayed in, keeping their sexuality a closely held secret. Among them was J.D. Smith, an Air Force lieutenant who co-founded Outserve, an undercover support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service members. Well, today, we know that Lieutenant J.D. Smith is really Lieutenant Josh Seefried. Under the Smith pseudonym, he also edited the upcoming essay collection "Our Time: Breaking the Silence of Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Josh Seefried joins us now. Good to have you with us, Josh.

JOSH SEEFRIED: Thank you for having me on.

NEARY: So today, this was your first chance to come out without any official repercussions. How does it feel?

SEEFRIED: It feels like a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders. There's not a day, when living under "don't ask, don't tell," you didn't think about it. And today, that's all gone.

NEARY: I find that amazing when you say there was not a day that you didn't think about it. Really, truly?

SEEFRIED: I mean, everything consumes you about it. You have to go into work fearing that someone may find out, someone may bring it up. And it comes up in conversation more than you think - about relationships. Friends will ask you who are you dating, or why don't you want to hang out. And so every single day, there's something that you have to think about with "don't ask, don't tell."

NEARY: And if somebody asked who you were dating, did you lie?

SEEFRIED: Absolutely. You had to lie, or you just tried to remain silent about it. It was very awkward, and it gets more and more confusing, the more years you live under it.

NEARY: Do you think that a lot of people in the military now will come out, as you did today?

SEEFRIED: I think that should be the goal. I think that people need to feel comfortable coming out, and that's why I chose to come out on day one. I felt if I didn't come out on day one, I'd be a hypocrite for saying in the past that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would not be an issue; it would be business as usual, and I chose not to come out. So I chose to come out on day one to show that it's not an issue, and that people should feel comfortable doing so.

NEARY: Well, it seems from your book, some of the essays in your book, that perhaps some parts of the military aren't quite ready for this change. For example, there's an essay from a West Point cadet who questions just how much the academy's culture of hyper-masculinity and intolerance to homosexuality really can change. So what is the atmosphere, and do you think people really will be afraid to publicly declare that they are gay?

SEEFRIED: Well, that's the stigma we've got to fight now, and that's one of the goals I really tried to do with the book. When people share their stories with their real names and real details, it starts to break down that stigma. Whether or not you really don't like the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" or favor it, you're at least talking about it. And when you have that discussion, you can start to break down the walls of prejudice - which is why I chose to edit the book, and why I chose to come out on day one, is that it starts the discussion to start to build that atmosphere of respect.

NEARY: So you think it's really important for them to come out, to declare publicly who they are?

SEEFRIED: Absolutely. If we don't come out, then we remain invisible. But when we come out and have that discussion and say, I am a gay military member or a gay officer - high in the ranks or low in the ranks, and we're everywhere - it breaks down that stigma, and it normalizes it.

NEARY: It sounds like some officers have said, oh, this is just going to be another day. Is that what it's going to feel like, do you think, on most bases?

SEEFRIED: Oh, absolutely. It's business as usual - as normal. You're going to go onto the base, and no issue at all will pop up. It will maybe come up for five minutes - oh, you're gay. And then you realize it's just another boring conversation. I think people remember today more for "Glee" than they do the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Really? All right. You know, it's interesting. Some of the essays in your book also are from members of the service who did reveal that they were gay and were discharged as a result. Will those people have an opportunity to be reinstated now?

SEEFRIED: Yes. Everyone that was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" can apply to be reinstated, but they're going to have to go through the normal process. So anyone that was kicked out can apply. I mean, even people that were kicked out years ago - they got a dishonorable discharge - can now apply to get their discharge upgraded, such as a World War II veteran that got his discharge upgraded recently.

NEARY: So what challenges do you see still ahead for gay and lesbian service members?

SEEFRIED: I think it's about creating that atmosphere of respect where you feel comfortable to come out. Over in Britain, there's still not one Royal Marine that's felt comfortable to come out publicly, and that's something that we have to change over here - because their policy changed, you know, 10 years ago. And we can't let that happen over here. And that's why gay service members need to feel comfortable coming out. That's why the book is important, and that's why these type of interviews are important.

NEARY: Now, it's pretty early for this to occur, but have you had any negative reaction so far to coming out today?

SEEFRIED: Absolutely not. My commander called me today, after he saw the interviews. And he said, make sure you're professional. And it was very well-received, and I've received nothing but support. And I think that that's the way it is. And other people that have done the same thing, we've started to work with our public affairs officers and other people on bases. And it's been nothing but acceptance. I think it's what, exactly, we expected.

NEARY: Air Force Lieutenant Josh Seefried came out today with the official end of "don't ask, don't tell." Josh Seefried, thanks so much.

SEEFRIED: Thank you.

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