SAN FRANCISCO - The nation's only professional group for active-duty gay military personnel is holding its first conference in Las Vegas this weekend, an event only made possible by the recent lifting of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the armed forces.
The OutServe Leadership Summit is designed to highlight the diversity of gays in the military and the challenges they face, and marks the largest gathering of gay troops in one location since the ban was lifted last month. OutServe is a formerly clandestine network of gay and lesbian service members that lobbied the Pentagon to support repealing "don't ask, don't tell."
The four-day conference kicked off Thursday at the New York, New York hotel/casino with private meetings for leaders of the group's 48 chapters around the world. At least 215 service members, veterans and civilian supporters registration was capped to make the event manageable have signed up to mingle and to attend panel discussions that range from marriage and the push to secure benefits for gay military spouses to post-military careers and the remaining ban on transgender troops. The CIA is among the event's sponsors, and other scheduled workshops include topics such as Scriptures and Homosexuality.
"There are issues of leadership and faith and family that are specific to our community and that by addressing, our folks can be better soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and better leaders," Sue Fulton, a founding OutServe board member and the first openly gay West Point graduate to be appointed to the academy's board.
OutServe announced Thursday that an openly gay Department of Defense official, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson, would keynote the summit's Saturday night dinner, which also will recognize a Minnesota couple, Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt, whose son was killed this year while serving in Afghanistan with an Army unit whose members knew he was gay.
"Part of the goal of the conference is to recognize the past, and also as an organization plan for the future," said Ty Walrod, a civilian who co-founded OutServe and served as its spokesman when his friend and co-founder, Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, used an alias to avoid being discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."
Nathaniel Frank, a historian whose 2009 book, "Unfriendly Fire," argued that banning gays from serving freely hurt U.S. military readiness, said that gay men and lesbians have formed secret social networks going as far back as World War I. Aided by technology, research and the public's increasing indifference to sexual orientation, OutServe is the first such group to be able to take its activities from anonymous to aboveground, he said.
"'Don't ask, don't tell' obviously required people who in many cases needed support, the support of each other and mutual assistance, to remain in the shadows even to one another," Frank said. "So to have a conference like this, where people can step out of the shadows and come together to discuss the things that are important to being the best soldiers they can be, is historic and is essential and is one of the reasons so many people have been advocating for an end to a policy that requires you to hide."
OutServe leaders announced plans for the convention in May, two months before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and President Barack Obama certified that the armed forces were ready to welcome openly gay and lesbian troops. Under the law abolishing "don't ask, don't tell" that Congress passed in December, the policy would not officially end until 60 days after such certification.
The timing ended up working out, but if the ban had remained in effect, this weekend's summit would have most likely been postponed "out of respect for the military and for the policy," Fulton said.
Organizers are acutely aware that some opposition to the integration of gay and lesbian troops still exists in Washington and within the U.S. military. They reminded conference participants this week that they should not make comments that could be perceived as political. They were also urged to not wear their uniforms since the conference is not an official military event, or engage in the debauchery for which Las Vegas is known.