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Gay Servicemembers’ Group to Continue After DADT Ban

by Shaun Knittel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday August 20, 2011

Born out of the necessity of helping members of the Armed Forces navigate the tortuous then-new policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," since 1993, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has the non-partisan, non-profit, legal services, watchdog and policy organization that fought to end discrimination against and harassment of LGBT military personnel.

SLDN has always been on the side of the young service man or woman getting the boot because of DADT. No other organization has directly dealt with more men and woman whose careers were ruined due to the discriminatory law. In all, SLDN's in-house legal team has responded to more than 11,000 requests for assistance.

So it's natural ask whether, when DADT breaths its last breath on September 20, SLDN will remain an active organization. The group's executives say they will stay because as long as there is discrimination among the people who defend our freedoms.

The cornerstone of the organization's mission will remain the same. However, added SLDN spokesperson Zeke Stokes, "In the post-repeal world, we will continue to be on the frontlines of advancing equality within the military by fighting alongside those who may face discrimination or harassment as we advocate for effective implementation of repeal; litigating in the courts to bring about full LGBT equality in America's military when necessary and timely; advocating for legally married service members to receive the same benefits as their straight counterparts; and assisting veterans to correct or upgrade their discharge paperwork."

In other words, there is still a lot of work to be done even after repeal officially takes effect on September 20.

SLDN has called on President Obama to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the military based on sexual orientation and gender identity. "The order would give LGBT service members recourse outside their chain of command if they are experiencing discrimination or harassment," Stokes explains.

There is no underplaying how effective SLDN's contribution was to the DADT repeal. SLDN recounted the stories of veterans impacted by DADT, offered speakers to cable news channels during key moments in the repeal fight, and lobbied Congress. Among many others, SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis, Former Air Force Major Mike Almy, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, former Army Captain Tony Woods and Air Force Staff Sergeant David Hall were repeat guests on MSNBC programs.

SLDN also shared experiences of servicemembers to illustrate the need for swift action in 2010 and authored op-eds in several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN Opinion (online) and The Hill. SLDN worked with veterans and supporters to place opinion pieces in many local papers as well. Making national headlines, SLDN played a unique role in reframing the national discussion and sounding the call for a final push to repeal DADT in 2010 during the lame-duck session.

Post DADT repeal legislation, signed in December 2010, SLDN officials say they received hundreds of calls from those fired under the law who wish to see their discharge paperwork changed or who want to apply for re-accession to the armed services.

On July 28, SLDN unveiled "Freedom to Serve: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Military Service," a comprehensive legal guide for LGBT servicemembers, veterans, future recruits and their families. The guide is a first-of-its-kind overview of laws and policies related to military service in the U.S. following DADT repeal, as well as practical information for advocates and friends of LGBT service members.

"SLDN also issued a call urging the Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to establish Special Boards that would address issues faced by former service members discharged under DADT and the prior regulatory ban," Stokes noted. "Creating these Boards will enable the armed services to determine the proper remedy for each former service member in a fair, uniform, and efficient manner."

As an advocacy and legal services organization for gay troops, SLDN officials say they know, better than anyone does, that when troops can safely come out as gay or lesbian next month, new problems will arise and they are standing by to help.

Still, SLDN officials say it is important to acknowledge the win the LGBT community and specifically LGBT servicemembers gained.

"Earlier this week, SLDN announced nationwide "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Day" celebrations that will take place on September 20. A flagship event is scheduled in Washington, DC, accompanied by supporter-created events throughout the country. An online tool kit enables supporter to manage their events.

Eighteen years after their creation, SLDN continues to be the best "battle buddy" a gay troop could ask for.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.