The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was still in effect when Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried helped start secret Facebook groups to connect active-duty gay and lesbian soldiers with each other online. Seefried also wrote for many publications — under the pseudonym J.D. Smith — about what it was like to be gay and on active duty in the military.
Seefried's secret Web network, OutServe, launched a magazine on Sept. 20 — the same day that don't ask, don't tell was officially repealed and Seefried outed himself.
On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Seefried and his partner, Lt. Karl Johnson, a member of the Air Force who blogged anonymously for Time magazine while subject to don't ask, don't tell rules, detail their experiences in the military. They also talk about some of the new challenges gay troops face now that they can openly serve.
At the stroke of midnight on Sept. 20, Seefried changed his Twitter picture from a silhouette to a picture of his face. He then tweeted that his name is Josh and that he's an openly gay member of the U.S. military.
"I was incredibly nervous going into midnight, but after midnight, I started receiving text messages and phone calls of support — more than I ever had thought was possible to get," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There was a tremendous amount of support, more than I ever could have imagined."
Seefried, an Air Force Academy graduate, works as a budget analyst at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. A lot of people he works with on base didn't know he was gay until he publicly announced it. He says the feedback he received afterward — from his commanding officer and from others on his base — was all positive.
"I have not received one single homophobic reaction from the people I work with or back with the people on base," he says. "I came out in a very public way on Sept. 20, and I still get looks on base like, 'Aren't you the kid that was on the news?' But I had maybe 200 messages in my work email from different people in the Air Force from across the world, either thanking me for what I had done with OutServe or saying it was an inspiration. I haven't received one negative comment in the last two weeks."
Inequalities In The Ranks
The repeal has brought to light a number of issues that Seefried says bring "inequality among the ranks [of the military]."
"When don't ask, don't tell existed, everyone was assumed to be straight," he explains. "The discrimination was invisible. So when you were kicking out someone from the military, everyone got to turn an eye to it. But now that there's actually openly gay troops, that's visible. And it's very different how gay troops are being treated than straight troops."
He points out that married members of the military currently receive higher pay than their single peers. Legal gay marriages are not recognized by the military, so gay members of the military will receive unequal pay and health benefits. In addition, straight married couples in the military can currently put in for a joint assignment to remain with their significant other.
"Commanders are going to have to watch this inequality exist," he says. "And I think that's going to create some interesting problems in the military, because the military is built on equality and being treated the same. ... State legislation does nothing for people in the military because for us the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] is everything. So if there's not a workaround ... or a repeal of DOMA, then gay marriage or getting treated equally in the military is not going to happen."
Seefried says he was harassed in early 2010 by a civilian instructor at a technical training course. The instructor, who found out Seefried was gay, outed him to his military superiors. Seefried was then temporarily removed from his job. But he was helped by a rule put in place by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which said service members could not be discharged by third-party outings.
"That saved me," Seefried says. After the incident, he contacted other people who he knew were also gay and in the military. They formed OutServe to connect gay service members around the world.
"I think the most important thing that OutServe did was [to create] a social network," he says. "We started to connect people in Germany and Hawaii so that they had people in their own area who were now connected that could meet together. ... People didn't know there were so many other gay people in the military. There's so many people who told me personally, 'I would have never met another gay person in the military had this not existed somewhere.' "
The group also provided the Pentagon and the White House, for the first time ever, access to gay troops through a surrogate. That took place last summer, after the Pentagon had commissioned a study from the Rand Corp. to find out the long-term and short-term effects of repealing don't ask, don't tell. Rand wanted to include input from gay service members in the study — but there was a problem: no one in the military was out.
The Pentagon eventually got in touch with gay advocacy groups, who got in touch with the members of OutServe. Working through a civilian liaison, gay troops had their voices heard in the Pentagon report.
"OutServe ended up being over 90 percent of the responses that the Rand Corp. surveyed," Seefried says. "That survey ended up getting quoted in the Senate hearings [last] December when they really started talking about repeal. I think the Rand survey would have failed if we didn't have OutServe there."
OutServe currently has 4,500 members. Seefried says he expects the group to grow — and reiterates that coming out in the military should always be a personal choice.
"That's how it should be," he says. "But one of the things that personally bothers me ... was that over in Britain, the policy's been changed for 10 years, but yet there's not one single Royal Marine that's out right now. Not one. And it's because there's not a culture over there that's been built yet that says, 'It's OK to be gay in the military.' "
On Sept. 20, OutServe published the first issue of a magazine geared toward LGBT troops and their families. Seefried and 99 other members of the military came out in the issue.
"We had photos, in uniform, and [we featured] every single career field, including combat, including the Marines. And they all came out — they all told their story using their real name," he says. "And that helps change the mentality of people who feel like they can't be gay in the military. When that closeted gay Marine goes online and reads about [other gay military members], he realizes that he's not alone and that it's not a problem to be gay in the military."