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Life After DOMA: The LGBT Military Community Prepares for the Next Fight

The challenges LGBT people face in America won't simply dematerialize as we achieve each new policy objective. Passing good laws and enacting good policies is hard work, but changing culture is much harder.
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As the morning of Sept. 20, 2011, dawned on American military installations around the world, gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members woke up to a new reality: Their service in defense of this country would no longer be contingent on a willingness to lie about who they are. Ending "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) was a historic accomplishment, decades in the making, and with it, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and OutServe achieved the policy goal around which they had been rallying support for years.

But when the celebrations ended and we took stock of the new military we'd helped create, we realized our work wasn't over. In fact, it was really just getting started. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual troops could now be "out," but they were anything but equal.

The same will be true later this month when the Supreme Court rules on the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Prop 8.

For LGBT members of the military, veterans, and their families, the repeal of DADT left daunting challenges unaddressed -- and they remain largely unaddressed today, nearly two years later. The lack of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity protections means that gay and lesbian service members have no recourse when they become targets of harassment or discriminatory treatment -- and they do. Transgender people are still barred from entering the military and are dismissed for having a "personality disorder," or worse, if they are outed while serving. And, of course, DOMA prohibits the military from taking care of our service members' families or providing them with mission-critical support like health care or survivor benefits. So on that morning after DADT ended, our policy agenda was still full.

One of my greatest frustrations as a leader arises from the fact that so few in our movement seem to understand this. In the year immediately following repeal, philanthropic funding of advocacy for LGBT service members dropped precipitously, from over $1 million in 2010 to less than half that in 2011. Grassroots engagement fell off as well, as attention shifted to other issues. As a result, in the year between repeal and the merger of OutServe and SLDN, we lost much of the momentum for change that we'd built up in the legislative fight. We were perilously close, in fact, to becoming the victims of our own success, which would have robbed the movement of its best resource for making change happen in the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and robbed LGBT service members of their voice in the Pentagon and the media.

However, our members get it. They get it because they know firsthand how little has really changed since DADT repeal. That's why we're finding that around half of them, and likely more, aren't out in their workplaces or to their chain of command today. They're afraid -- afraid of what might happen if their commanders or colleagues knew they are LGBT, afraid of what it could cost them to live openly.

They also understand, in a way others in our movement have yet to comprehend, that focusing on the policy agenda alone is too short-sighed. The challenges LGBT people face in America won't simply dematerialize as we achieve each new policy objective. In the armed forces, entrenched prejudice and unconscious bias in the chain of command and in military communities, and the complete lack of any diversity and inclusion training that includes us, will mean that LGBT troops just won't get promoted at the same rate as their peers. They won't get choice assignments or professional development opportunities as often as their straight counterparts do. Their families won't get the same level of support that other families do. And the only way to change that is to change the culture of our military.

That's why our board of directors met in Washington, D.C., in early May to chart a new course for our future as an organization. The result was a new mission statement and set of strategic aims focusing on empowering and supporting LGBT troops to change the culture of the units and communities where they serve:

  • Providing them with unique opportunities for professional development, support, and networking at the local, regional, and national level

  • Building networks of support for LGBT military families
  • Mobilizing and organizing them and their allies to make unique contributions to the quality of life of our military communities
  • Equipping the DOD and the DVA to create inclusive and respectful command climates and the institutional culture of LGBT inclusion to undergird them
  • At OutServe-SLDN, we often say that we've seen the future of the LGBT civil rights movement. We live in that future every day. What we mean is that our successes have taught us a powerful lesson: Passing good laws and enacting good policies is hard work, but it is the easiest part of what we do. Changing culture is much harder. That's the mission we've claimed for ourselves at OutServe-SLDN: building a culture of inclusion and respect for LGBT people in our military, even as we continue the fight to end the discriminatory policies that remain.

    And I would argue that's the work that awaits nearly every LGBT advocacy organization in America on the other side of that new world we're hoping to create by pulling down DOMA and enacting nondiscrimination policies nationwide. Some day soon, all of our organizations that have made policy work their top priority will have to face the same challenges we here are facing now. We feel honored to have the privilege and responsibility of facing them first -- and we believe it's critical that we face them effectively and well, and that we share what we're learning in the process freely with others. Because that future is coming; it's barreling at us at a breakneck speed, and nothing can stop it now. The only question is whether we'll be ready for what's beyond it.

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