By LISA LEFF
LAS VEGAS – Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan kept it simple and sweet. She was eight months into a nine-month assignment in Kuwait, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had just informed Congress that the U.S. armed forces were ready to integrate openly gay troops.
Morgan decided the time was right to come out to her commander. The photograph of her wife and 4-year-old daughter she kept hidden on her desk helped her do it.
“I said, ‘Sir, I would like to introduce you to someone. This is my family,”‘ Morgan recalled of her July conversation with her boss, an Army colonel leading a 2,400-soldier brigade. “He said, ‘Charlie, you have a beautiful family. You know, “don’t ask, don’t tell” prevented me from getting to know you.”‘
Nearly four weeks after the U.S. lifted its “don’t ask, don’t tell” banning open service by gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, similar stories of secret-shedding, relief and acceptance were swapped Saturday at the first-ever national convention of gay military personnel on active duty.
Each of the 200 or so sailors, soldiers, Marines and airmen attending the conference put on by the formerly clandestine group known as OutServe had, to varying degrees, only recently revealed their sexual orientations at work. None had gotten a reaction worse than a shrug.
“Out of the 4,500 members we have, we haven’t had any person come to us about one single problem, which is huge, because right before repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ we had tons of problems,” like investigations and other issues relayed to the Pentagon, said Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, the group’s co-founder. “But right now, after Sept. 20, there is nothing to relay because everything has been 100 percent positive.”
Senior Airman Kody Parsons, a substance abuse counselor at an Air Force base in Fairfield, California, came out to his superiors a week and a half ago because he thought they should know he was attending the OutServe conference.
They thanked him for speaking up, supported his trip to Las Vegas and asked him to let him know if they could help in any way. Parsons called it “a nonevent.”
“I think it’s very important to ensure nothing changes for fear of reinforcing the stigma that, ‘Well now that the gays are here, look out,'” he said. “My sexual orientation doesn’t have any effect on my ability to do my job, and they recognize that.”
Yet the self-selected attendees of the OutServe Leadership Summit know that they are on the front lines of the culture wars. Estimates of the number of gay troops range from 47,000 to 65,000, and with integration so young, there are likely tens of thousands of gay military personnel still serving in silence for fear of harassment or endangering their careers.
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 she 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.
“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.
Despite the warm reception she has received from superiors and colleagues, Morgan learned last week that because the military still does not recognize same-sex spouses as dependents, her wife, Karen, will not be allowed to attend an upcoming welcome home ceremony at National Guard headquarters in New Hampshire for deployed troops and their families.
Morgan, 47, who spent a dozen years in the Army on active duty and has been in the National Guard for another seven, also is battling breast cancer and is continuing to lobby to have military benefits extended to families like hers so they will be taken care of if she does not survive.
“She deserves the same benefits as any other spouse,” Morgan said. “She went through the same stress, fear and concern during my deployment as any other spouse.”