OutServe Storms Vegas

For the first time ever in a professional group setting, out, serving, gay and lesbian service members gathered for the historic 2011 Armed Forces Leadership Summit October 13 – 16 in Las Vegas.

With nearly 250 LGBT active-duty, veterans, family members and allies from around the world in attendance, the conference fostered networking, professional development and idea exchange on a wide range of topics related to LGBT military service.

The conference kicked off with a day of activities for OutServe leadership to help organize the new association and provide resources for chapter leaders. Following that was a full day of concurrent workshops including:

-Partner and family benefits: what you should know
-Pluralism and professionalism in the military chaplaincy
-How our military allies did it: foreign perspective on LGBT service
-Being “out” while being in: leading from the front
-Post-military career opportunities
-Equal opportunity and gender in a post-repeal military
-Scriptures and homosexuality
-Service members and the freedom to marry
-Dealing with deployment: for servicemembers and partners
-OutServe Magazine: how we can make it better, how you can contribute
-Transgender service: current issues and policy
-The death of DADT and the path forward for LGBT rights

While the conference was uniquely OutServe, a host of organizations were there as speakers and participants. Represented organizations included Knights Out, the Service Women’s Action Network, the Military Acceptance Project, the Military Partners and Family Coalition, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Service Academy Gay and Lesbian Association, the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, and the NOH8 Campaign.

Despite OutServe’s infancy, the group attracted several sponsors for the event, including The Human Rights Campaign, Central Intelligence Agency, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the Courage Campaign, Coverity, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Tropicana, the Log Cabin Republicans, American Veterans for Equal Rights, Sanctuary Project Veterans, the Pride Institute, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Stonewall Democrats of Nevada, New York-New York Hotel & Casino, and Wells Fargo & Co.

Speaking of sponsorships, the OutServe Board was pleased to announce during the summit that they hired the association’s first full-time employee responsible for resource development, Tom Nibbio.

As the conference wrapped up, an unofficial poll showed an interest in renewing the conference for 2012 in Washington D.C. where conference attendees could have an effect on ongoing legislative initiatives for the LGBT community.

Articles in this summit package will address various workshops, attendees and other events during the weekend.

High Ranking Gay Defense Civilian Addresses Summit

The OutServe Summit culminated with a dinner keynoted by the highest-ranking ‘out’ gay civil servant in the Department of Defense (DoD), Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson.
Mr. Wilson was honest about his experiences as a gay man, and as a senior Defense official during the DoD’s repeal implementation.

Met with thunderous applause, the highlight of Mr. Wilson’s speech was his personal delivery of a letter from First Lady Michelle Obama to the Summit attendees. The contents of that letter read:

“I’m so pleased to send my warmest greetings to all of you attending the inaugural OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit. And I want to thank each of you for your service to our nation. Today, less than one percent of Americans serving in our military — they bear 100 percent of the responsibility of protecting our nation.

As you know well, when our troops are called to action, so, too, are their families. Military families support and sustain the servicemembers who support our freedom, care for our weak warriors, and survive our fallen.

I believe all of us have a role to play in ensuring our servicemembers and their families have the support they’ve earned. That’s why Dr. Jill Biden and I launched Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative to recognize and support our military families.

We are joining forces with cities and states, families and communities, businesses and nonprofits—asking everyone to do their part to honor and serve families just like yours.

Until very recently, gay and lesbian Americans have had to serve in silence. But in spite of this tremendous obstacle, servicemembers like you persevered. With courage and determination, you chose to serve and continue to exemplify what is best about the American spirit.

I truly hope Joining Forces makes a real impact in your lives and I hope it is worthy of the strength and commitment you and your families demonstrate every single day.
Thank you for your extraordinary service to our nation and please remember to stay connected to Joining Forces.

I wish you all the best.

Michelle Obama.”

He ended his speech with a call to action to bring focus on the difficulties the children of servicemembers face in school as well as to educate employers about supporting service members.

As the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Mr. Wilson serves as the principal staff advisor and assistant to the United States Secretary of Defense and United States Deputy Secretary of Defense for public information, internal information, community relations, information training, media analysis and communication strategy in support of DoD activities, leading a worldwide public affairs community of several thousand military and civilian personnel.

Leading From ‘Out’ Front

Five national change agents during the lead- up to repeal prompted a popular Summit panel entitled “Being ‘out’ while being in: leading from the front.”

Addressing the issue of being ‘out’ in a post-repeal environment, many participants sought guidance on how to create an atmosphere of inclusion and diversity in the military, as well as an understanding of the implications of being out.

Panelists included Zoe Dunning, former board co-chairwoman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Mike Almy and Jonathan Hopkins, repeal advocates kicked out under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), Michelle Benecke, one of the founders of SLDN, and Josh Seefried, one of the founders of OutServe.

One key conversation topic was fraternization among the ranks as gays and lesbians in a tight-knit community. Concern arose that LGBT troops may not be treated the same as their heterosexual counterparts.

The conversation compared the odd phenomenon where women military members sometimes hold other women subordinates to higher standards of conduct.

The panel also addressed a need for LGBT leadership in a post-DADT climate and the positive benefits of leading the way to open and honest service for LGBT service members.

Surviving Parents Stand Tall at OutServe Summit

Jeff & Lori Wilfahrt receive a commemorative plaque from OutServe Hawaii where their son, Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, had been stationed before being deployed

Just before the ban on openly gay troops ended, Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, who was gay, died by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. His parents, Lori and Jeff Wilfahrt, spoke about their experiences, their son and gay rights issues during the closing events of the OutServe’s Armed Forces Leadership Summit.

“His death is no more or less significant than other soldiers killed in wars, but ‘Gay Soldier Killed in Afghanistan’ is a compelling headline and confounding story for some people,” said Mrs. Wilfahrt, who remarked that being gay was the least interesting thing about her son.

Despite his death, the family was comforted in the idea that his story helped aid the fight to end DADT. Mrs. Wilfahrt relayed her son’s experiences in the military and the tributes given to him, such as naming a security forces outpost after him near Kandahar.

“What all these tributes tell me is that a good soldier is defined by many things, and sexual orientation is not in the equation,” she said, applauding the service of other gay service members and those who helped defeat DADT.

She transitioned from DADT to other LGBT issues, stating soldiers fight to protect freedoms, but people are quick to limit freedoms at home for some Americans.

“It is not lost on us that Andrew died protecting rights that he himself could not enjoy,” she said. “Especially the right to marry the person he loved.”

Mrs. Wilfahrt relayed how her home state of Minnesota pushed through a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, up for vote in 2012, pledging to use her son’s story to defeat the trend.\

“Ordinary people like Jeff and I are on your side,” she said. “We’re willing to fight with you and for you. There are a lot of people like us willing to do the same. Tonight, we celebrate the progress made so far. Thank you for all you do to make things right for all LGBT citizens of this country.”

The Wilfahrts were presented a photograph of a section of highway in Hawaii dedicated to their son, maintained by the OutServe Hawaii chapter. Cpl. Wilfahrt was stationed in Hawaii prior to deployment.

OutServe Develops Service Academy Cadets at Summit

Cadet First Class Andrew Gavelek pictured on right

The Army and Coast Guard service academies sent cadets on official orders to attend OutServe’s Armed Forces Leadership Summit to garner information on how to lead as cadets and young officers in a post-DADT military.

Cadet First Class Andrew Gavelek attended through sponsorship by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s cultural diversity and inclusion office after hearing about the event through OutServe’s online network.

Amazed by the camaraderie at the Summit, Gavelek said, “The conversations we are having here are going to benefit our organizations as a whole.” He intends to go back to the Academy and share his experiences at the Summit.

In particular, Gavelek wants to impress upon his peers that there are a number of resources available out there to handle LGBT issues for those who serve. “If we create a million ways to handle the change, we are going to defeat ourselves in the long run,” he said.

After serving on a Coast Guard cutter, likely as a deck watch officer, Gavelek hopes to get involved in policy making for the Coast Guard at a national level.

Two Army cadet third classes from West Point, preferring to not be named, spoke to OutServe Magazine as well. One aspires to be an aviator. The other is looking at the engineer branch. They were part of a group of seven cadets on a West Point Department of Cadet Activities sanctioned trip. Knights Out, West Point’s LGBT alumni group, sponsored their trip.

One cadet was even allowed to skip out on regimental-level training to attend. “West Point was very supportive of the trip in general,” he said. “They are always looking for ways to send cadets out to learn about things that affect the changing dynamics of the Army.”

Both cadets felt the Summit prepared them to answer questions about repeal to their peers and future platoons, and made them more of a leadership asset to their cadet companies now.

“I’ll be able to discern the best leadership approach to situations and can give advice because I learned about the policies here,” said one cadet.

“It doesn’t make us an expert, but it makes us more knowledgeable about the transition,” said the other cadet.

Both cited the partner benefits panel and the panel on international allies benchmarking open gay service in their countries as being very helpful.

“There are going to be different types of partner benefits,” one said. “It’s going to be very complicated and cause an imbalance in my unit. I’m going to have to answer questions to my troops on why someday.”

All of the cadets OutServe Magazine spoke to felt the Summit was beneficial to their leadership development as future military officers.

“I appreciate OutServe for hosting the conference and Knights Out for funding us,” one said. “This has been a very helpful conference … informing people on current issues that apply to all service members and making us informed leaders.”

Summit’s Benefits Impress Attendees

Time well-spent and a professional environment were the general reviews of the inaugural Outserve Armed Forces Leadership Summit October 13-15 in Las Vegas.

Air Force Capt. Ryan Quinn, a C-17 pilot from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and his local OutServe chapter leader wanted to come simply because it was in Las Vegas and to connect with people of similar interest.

What he got out of the Summit, though, was more.

“I was amazingly impressed with the professionalism and content of the conference, especially for such a young organization at its first conference,” he said. “Our members bring a lot of skill and experience to the conversation. I think it’ll help me understand some of the issues that people are facing and how I can serve to help leadership understand those issues.”

Having attended a workshop at the summit on transgender service, Quinn recognized there is more to do.

“LGB service members are allies for transgender service members, and it will be necessary to help out in the fight to get equality for them,” he said.

Quinn also learned from international allies on best steps going forward.

“Just because we’re not banned from service now doesn’t mean we don’t need a policy. No policy is not the best policy. There needs to be some nondiscrimination policy that covers all areas. Without a policy, it’s just undefined,” he said.

The number of people who attended, particularly junior ranks, made an impact on U.S. Coast Guard LCDR John Fiorentine from Washington, D.C.

“It’s exciting to be at the first one and be a part of this. I look forward to next year and getting more involved in my local chapter,” he said. Fiorentine was impressed by the Hawaii chapter’s organization and level of involvement that won them the Chapter of the Year award during the keynote dinner.

Others were more nostalgic about the conference, like Petty Officer 1st Class Leonardo Lucio who joined the Navy in 1990 and could have retired last year, but stayed through repeal just to see what it would be like.

“After coming to the OutServe Summit, I’d stay for another 20 years. It’s going to be a new Navy,” he said.

Even a conference as successful as this has room for improvement, however. Suggestions during the final session included the need to actively recruit more women attendees, create programs specific to the lesbian community, and also provide forums for the plethora of gay military spouses in attendance.

Phuoc Le, the partner of an Army reservist from Annapolis, Md., said he learned a lot about what his partner had to deal with during deployment, but wished the program had more to do with spouse support.

Many sponsors and partners agreed to support the conference in the future as well. Amazon.com pledged to bring 15 partner organizations with it next year and Jeffrey Correa, a veteran with the group Freedom to Marry, said, “I loved it. It was better than Cats. I want to go again.”

  1. Egypt’s Military Offers Power Handover Vote

Leave a reply



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *