Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
I remember walking down the streets of Knoxville, Tenn. in 1995 and being approached by armed forces recruitment officers. They would usually have a catchy opener and then launch into their sales pitch about the benefits of serving my country. This was right in the thick of my strident coming out period, so we always ended on that note. I was gay and not willing to compromise that part of my life.
My father was an Air Force officer, so the armed forces was always on my radar as a possibility, but when the age and circumstances came about during which I could enlist, my sexuality was the journey that had priority. I admire the discipline of the military and believe in its value in transforming lives, so I was very pleased to see the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) in 2011.
With Veterans Day having just passed, I want to reflect on nonprofits for our LGBT service members, veterans and their families.
The first organization is called the Military Acceptance Project (MAP, militaryacceptanceproject.org), an advocacy group for demographics that have historically faced discrimination within the military for reasons of gender, religion, race or sexual orientation. Their slogan “Acceptance is Mission Critical” encapsulates the mission of this agency.
Founded in January 2011 by graduate students at the University of Southern California – themselves service members, combat veterans, military family members and military supporters – the organization shares a dedication to service members and a passion for community service.
The root work of MAP is to meld the foundational values of the military with the tenants of social work in a way to effectively serve individuals who currently or have had to serve our country while sublimating a part of themselves to feel accepted or safe. While happy with the repeal of DADT, they recognize that there is still a cultural change that must be addressed, and MAP sponsors training for military leadership regarding acceptance and inclusion of LGBT individuals. Additionally, they work to build a network of emotional and mental support for those who have been victims of discrimination prior to federal protections.
When we speak of support networks, it is crucial to recognize the partners and spouses of military personnel. While 1993’s DADT was meant as a compromise to allow LGBT individuals the opportunity to serve, the people whom they chose to love could not be a full part of their lives. Attendance to military or unit events, and access to support services and networks was not possible as those partners could not officially “exist” in that role. For same-sex spouses and partners of service members that were stationed in rural or isolated bases, this could be particularly challenging as there might not be any other social or support outlet for them.
The American Military Partner Association (AMPA, militarypartners.org) was founded in 2009 by a group of partners that wanted their plight to be known. The initiative began by connecting these individuals on a national level, in the tradition of military spouses during World War II and the Vietnam War eras. As the initiative grew to include many hundreds of these partners and spouses, their stories were successfully accepted by media so that this silent demographic was recognized.
An exciting recent event in LGBT military activism was the announcement of the joining of two strong voices for service members: OutServe and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).
OutServe (outserve.org) started as a Facebook movement that connected LGBT service members, and now boasts over 6,000 individuals in more than 50 chapters worldwide. The organization has been telling their stories since it’s inception and is the publisher of OutServe magazine, a publication that can now be found on military bases. As we see the enactment of the DADT repeal, it is vital that our LGBT active service members have a visible presence and are recognized for their contributions.
Equally as important is honoring the legacy of those who had to serve in silence or, through attempting to be true to themselves while serving their country, were given an “other than honorable” or “dishonorable” discharge. Over 13,000 members have been discharged under the DADT policy, and a less-than-honorable discharge affects both their ability to access benefits and often their ability to transition into civilian life.
SLDN (sldn.org) offers legal services for those who are hoping to change a discharge for being gay or lesbian, an undertaking that is no small feat. Additionally, they recognize that the repeal of DADT did not change the fact that prejudice and discrimination exist, and their legal team is available to take on these issues as well.
They also continue to advocate for better policies, as the repeal does not include transgender individuals and, with the Defense of Marriage Act still in place, does not create equal access to benefits for LGBT spouses and families. To help navigate this landscape, SLDN has produced “Freedom to Serve: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Military Service,” a guide to what the repeal of DADT really means to our service members.
We can celebrate the step forward that the DADT repeal represents in our progress as a nation, but it is vital that we also remember the devastating effect that sanctioned discrimination has had on the LGBT community. Take an opportunity to hear their stories and remember to say thank you. They are a part of our history that must be remembered.
—Ian Morton has worked in the HIV field since 1994 when he began volunteering with AIDS Response Knoxville. He currently serves as outreach liaison for the AIDS Research Institute at UCSD. To nominate a person or organization to be featured in Profiles in Advocacy, please submit name, affiliation and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.