With An Eye to September, Gay Military Advocacy Group Releases Post-DADT Guide

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 29, 2011

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has released a comprehensive guide to military service in the post-"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" world that is slated to dawn on Sept. 20, sixty days after the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the defense secretary certified that America's fighting forces were ready for full integration.

The newly released "Freedom to Serve: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Military Service" is available as a PDF download at the SLDN website.

Although no major problems have emerged as the process of preparing the military for service by openly gay servicemembers has continued, advocates for gay and lesbian patriots in uniform who will be free to serve openly and honestly starting on Sept. 20 do not anticipate an absolutely fair and discrimination-free atmosphere from the get-go. For that reason, a July 28 news release from SLDN noted, the group is ready to continue defending servicemembers and also press for full equality in both the treatment and the benefits they receive.

"The information contained in this legal guide will help service members, prospective service members, their families, and friends make informed decisions about how to serve successfully as we move beyond 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' It will also assist them in understanding how to protect themselves when necessary and how to respond if they are targeted in any way for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity," the group's legal director, David McKean, said.

The new guide includes information on topics such as "Going to Gay Oriented Events and Venues," "Deployment or Moving Overseas," "Standards of Conduct," and many others.

"Service members may go to any bar they choose, including gay bars," the section on going to "Gay Oriented Events and Venues" says. "The only caveat is that service members should check their command's 'off-limits establishments' designation list to ensure they do not violate any orders not to frequent a particular establishment. An establishment may be declared off-limits for a number of reasons, including known criminal activity, previous altercations involving service members, or other factors that affect good order and discipline."

"The armed forces have many rules, regulations, policies and standards of conduct," the "Standards of Conduct" section notes. "Service members are

responsible for complying with them, and all should be applied without regard to sexual orientation."

A section on "Addressing Harassment or Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation" advises, "Harassment can take different forms, ranging from a hostile command climate filled with anti-gay jokes and comments to direct verbal and physical abuse to death threats. Military leaders have stated publicly that they do not tolerate harassment. In fact, the DADT Repeal Policy Guidance states 'harassment or abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable.'

"Service members have the right to make complaints either through military channels or outside military channels about improper treatment or harassment," the guide adds.

"Service members who are the target of harassment have some avenues within the military to try to stop the harassment," the guide continues. "Service members facing the threat of immediate physical harm may also report the threat directly to the military police. Although some chaplains have been outspoken in their opposition to gay military members as a matter of policy, if a military member's physical safety is at risk, that is another matter. Chaplains can offer a safe space, especially on deployed ships, where there may be nowhere else to go."

The guide makes clear that even when the repeal of DADT is officially complete, gay and lesbian servicemembers may wish to be careful about whom they come out to. With specific regard to chaplains, the guide notes, "The Military Rules of Evidence makes conversations with chaplains privileged when service members seek their spiritual guidance. However, there is no privilege when service members speak to chaplains for reasons other than spiritual guidance.

"What constitutes spiritual guidance is not always clear," the guide adds. "Conversations about a service member's sexual orientation may not be considered spiritual guidance depending on the religious views of the chaplain's denomination."

Moreover, the guide points out ways in which gay servicemembers might find the military's rules used against them by homophobic fellow servicemembers.

"In order to be charged with 'Wrongful Sexual Contact' a service member must engage in 'sexual contact' without 'legal justification or lawful authorization,'" the guide notes, in clear and direct language. "'Sexual contact' is defined as any 'intentional touching' either directly or through clothes, of the 'genitalia,' 'breast,' 'buttocks' or other personal areas. LGB service members need to beware that an accidental collision with another service member could be mistakenly perceived-or purposefully misrepresented-as intentional 'sexual contact.' "

A charge of committing an "indecent act," the guide goes on to note, could arise from " 'observing' another person without their consent and 'contrary to that other person's reasonable expectation of privacy' in their naked body or while engaged in a sexual act," the guide points out. "LBG service members need to beware that an 'indecent act' charge could result from someone making a false allegation about leering in the showers or watching a roommate change."

The guide also serves as a reminder of one crucial omission: The repeal of DADT makes it legal for gay, lesbian, and bisexual troops to serve openly. But the repeal does not similarly liberate transgender servicemembers.

Overall, the new guide provides clear answers, in plain English, to a number of questions that troops of all sexual orientations might have.

"In addition, the guide serves as the core content for the newly designed SLDN web site," the news release noted. "The re-launched site is aimed squarely at providing LGBT service members, veterans and their families with the legal tools and other information they need to navigate the post-DADT repeal military environment."

"As has been our core mission since the founding of SLDN, we stand ready to represent and defend LGBT service members whenever the need arises, and our new online site reflects that ongoing commitment, while providing the most up-to-date and relevant information possible for those serving our country and those who support them," Aubrey Sarvis, the group's executive director and a veteran, said.

"In addition to outlining SLDN's legal services, the new guide and web site cover a myriad of issues including standards of conduct, benefits for spouses and families of service members, discharge upgrades, and veterans' benefits," the news release said. "The new guidance becomes effective upon repeal of DADT on Tuesday, September 20, 2011."

The news release was careful to point out that although the repeal has been certified, it is not yet in effect. In theory, gay and lesbian servicemembers could still be discharged under the still-applicable provisions of DADT, an anti-gay law put into place in 1993.

"Until then, those seeking information or assistance should consult the SLDN Survival Guide, outlining issues related to serving under DADT," added the release.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.