LAS VEGAS (AP) — Organizers warned participants at the nation’s only professional group for active-duty gay military personnel not to engage in any debauchery while they were in Las Vegas this past weekend.
Organizers were worried about those opposed to the conference. They reminded conference participants this week that they should not make comments that could be perceived as political. They were also urged to not wear their uniforms since the conference is not an official military event
The OutServe Leadership Summit highlighted the diversity of gays in the military and the challenges they face, and marked the largest gathering of gay troops in one location since the ban was lifted last month. OutServe is a formerly clandestine network of gay and lesbian service members that lobbied the Pentagon to support repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The four-day conference kicked off last Thursday at the New York, New York hotel/casino with private meetings for leaders of the group’s 48 chapters around the world. At least 215 service members, veterans and civilian supporters — registration was capped to make the event manageable — signed up to mingle and attend panel discussions that ranged from marriage and the push to secure benefits for gay military spouses to post-military careers and the remaining ban on transgender troops. The CIA is among the event’s sponsors.
“There are issues of leadership and faith and family that are specific to our community and that by addressing, our folks can be better soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and better leaders,” Sue Fulton, a founding OutServe board member and the first openly gay West Point graduate to be appointed to the academy’s board.
During a panel discussion called “Being Out While Being In,” Michelle Benecke, a former Army battery commander who left the military before “don’t ask, don’t tell” was enacted, called gay Americans serving their country with pride “the right wing’s biggest fear.” Senior officers, especially, should think long and hard about the positive example they would be setting for all their troops if they demonstrated their first priority was doing their jobs well.
“Because of what you do, you destroy the stereotype about gay people every day, that we are selfish and we are only out for our own gratification. No one can look at you and say that’s true,” Benecke said.
At the same time, she said would never presume to tell anyone when and how to make such a personal decision. Revealing one’s sexual orientation is an important step, but one that can also produce problems such as tokenism, she said.
“I want to acknowledge up front everybody is kind of in a different place. There are people coming out and have come out right now, and those folks are self-assessing: ‘Can I trust this friend? Am I in the kind of command where I can come out?'” said Benecke, who co-founded Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a legal aid group for gay troops at risk of being discharge.
“There are other folks that have to go through their own process and have to come to their own conclusions for their own safety and their own circumstance,” she said.
Nathaniel Frank, a historian whose 2009 book, “Unfriendly Fire,” argued that banning gays from serving freely hurt U.S. military readiness, said that gay men and lesbians have formed secret social networks going as far back as World War I. Aided by technology, research and the public’s increasing indifference to sexual orientation, OutServe is the first such group to be able to take its activities from anonymous to aboveground, he said.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ obviously required people who in many cases needed support, the support of each other and mutual assistance, to remain in the shadows even to one another,” Frank said. “So to have a conference like this, where people can step out of the shadows and come together to discuss the things that are important to being the best soldiers they can be, is historic and is essential and is one of the reasons so many people have been advocating for an end to a policy that requires you to hide.”
OutServe leaders announced plans for the convention in May, two months before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and President Barack Obama certified that the armed forces were ready to welcome openly gay and lesbian troops. Under the law abolishing “don’t ask, don’t tell” that Congress passed in December, the policy would not officially end until 60 days after such certification.
The timing ended up working out, but if the ban had remained in effect, this past weekend’s summit would have most likely been postponed “out of respect for the military and for the policy,” Fulton said.
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