Celebrating a Year Since Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal

Retired Admiral Michael Mullen and his wife Deborah. | TJ SENGEL

In an emotional and patriotic gathering unthinkable just one year ago, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and OutServe, the two leading advocacy groups for LGBT military personnel, celebrated the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by honoring retired Admiral Michael Mullen, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and his wife Deborah.

The September 18 event aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum docked in the Hudson River, at which Barbara Walters appeared and former Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy –– who was dogged in moving the repeal legislation in the House in 2010 –– also spoke, drew a crowd of well over 1,000 and raised $700,000 for the two sponsoring organizations.

Recognized for her work with veterans returning from overseas US military engagements, Deborah Mullen said, “Thank you to all of you who told us that Michael is your hero.”

When the retired admiral addressed the crowd, he noted that he often speaks in large public settings, but said, “I am caught short for words tonight.” With more than a dozen active duty service members standing behind him, Mullen added, “The ability to serve regardless of who you are is such a gift to America as America faces the future.”

Two days later, on the anniversary of the day open service began, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “It is a testament to the professionalism of our men and women in uniform that this change was implemented in an orderly manner, preserving unit cohesion, recruitment, retention and military effectiveness. As commander in chief, I’ve seen that our national security has been strengthened because we are no longer denied the skills and talents of those patriotic Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, and OutServe co-founder Josh Seefried echoed the president’s assessment of the military’s success in implementing repeal.

OutServe co-founder and co-director Josh Seefried. | TJ SENGEL

“What we have seen on the ground is exactly what we expected to see,” Seefried said. “As service members, everyone always knew there were gay and lesbian Americans serving alongside them. The difference now is that we are able to be honest about who we are, and despite what opponents predicted, that has improved unit cohesion, not harmed it.”

Sarvis noted that the two groups continue to press for equal family benefits for lesbian and gay active duty service members and veterans. Last October, SLDN filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of eight married gay or lesbian married couples challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.

A joint press release from SLDN and OutServe also noted that the fight for open service by transgender soldiers, currently barred due to military medical regulations, continues.

Among those on hand was Captain Steve Snyder-Hill, an Army reservist who was on duty in Iraq when his video-recorded question for a Republican presidential debate regarding the candidates’ views on open service sparked boos from the audience. With his husband Joshua by his side, Snyder-Hill told Gay City News about the trepidation he felt as he prepared to record his question.

“I didn’t want to show my face,” he said. “No one in Iraq knew. But I did show my face.”

Captain Steve Snyder-Hill (r.) and his husband Joshua. | GAY CITY NEWS

Samuel Toba, whose husband of two months is in the Navy and based in Bethesda, Maryland, traveled to the event on his own. The couple moved to Maryland from California eight years ago, but even though Toba is active with the Military Partners and Families Coalition, which advocates on behalf of gay and lesbian soldiers and their families, he was unable to meet his husband’s co-workers until repeal was implemented.

“It has meant a lot to us,” said Toba, who works in the chemical industry. “Both of us were really in the closet because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Among those recognized by Walters in her remarks was Melvin Dwork, a 90-year-old Navy veteran discharged dishonorably in 1944 after service in World War II. With the help of SLDN, he has finally been able to upgrade his discharge.