As gay military ban ends, officer sheds his alias
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — J.D. Smith came into being when a gay student group in upstate New York needed a speaker to talk about the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay troops. In the 16 months since then, he advised the Pentagon on the policy, became an oft-quoted media commentator on the topic and was a White House guest when President Barack Obama signed the bill paving the way for the ban’s appeal.
On Tuesday, when the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy goes away, so does J.D. Smith, the name a 25-year-old Air Force officer assumed to shield his identity as he engaged in high-wire activism that could have crashed down on his career. Even if no one asks, Air Force First Lt. Joshua David Seefried is telling.
“It’s all about leading now,” Seefried told The Associated Press as he prepared to come out to his superiors, put a picture of his Air Force pilot boyfriend on his office desk and update his personal Facebook profile to reflect his sexual orientation. “Those are things I feel like I should do because I guess that is what a leader would do. If we all stay in the closet and don’t act brave, then the next generation won’t have any progress.”
At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, Seefried works in finance, oversees a staff of 20 and is attached to the 87th Air Base Wing. Twice this year, he was set to deploy to the Middle East, and felt conflicted when his orders were canceled only because going overseas would have put J.D. Smith out of commission. A handful of friends at work know he is gay. Only one knows about OutServe, the underground network for gay military personnel he co-founded last year.
Although he expects only a fraction of the 65,000 gay men and lesbians estimated to be serving in the armed forces to reveal themselves at first, Seefried will not be alone. On Tuesday, his organization’s magazine will publish an issue featuring photographs and biographies of him and 100 other gay service members. It will be available online and at Army and Air Force commissaries.
OutServe, which has grown to 4,300 members in more than 40 chapters from Alaska to Iraq, has had an exceptionally aggressive rise since February 2010 launch. From the start, Seefried and a tech-savvy civilian friend, Ty Walrod, saw its mission as two-fold: to ease the isolation of gay service members and to educate the public about the price of requiring them to serve in silence.
They set up a private Facebook group for gay personnel, starting with a handful of Seefried’s friends. Each new recruit was allowed to nominate others for membership — and the group grew.
The organization also seized the chance to exercise unique niche as the voice of gays in the military after Defense Secretary Robert Gates appointed a working group to study the ramifications of a potential repeal.
OutServe released an open letter to Gates stating that the working group’s research would be flawed as long as it lacked a conduit to gays with boots on the ground. While the ban on openly gay service remained in effect, the Pentagon acknowledged, active duty gay and lesbian troops could not be part of the conversations.
“Many of us have served, and will continue to serve, openly in our units across all branches of the military,” the letter said. “These are the very units that should be studied the most, for they most clearly demonstrate the capacity for soldiers to serve with each other, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Eventually channels to the Pentagon were opened. The working group’s report in November specifically acknowledged the gay network for supplying information that only its members could provide.
While the policy remained in effect, though, Seefried lived a strange double-life. At first, only Walrod, and later, Jonathan Hopkins, an Army captain who was discharged under the policy last year, participated in talks and meetings with military officials at the Pentagon. As J.D. Smith, Seefried exchanged emails with civilians involved in the working group study.
His two lives converged unexpectedly on the day Obama signed the repeal bill. To get into the ceremony, he underwent security clearance as Josh Seefried, “but they knew I was J.D. Smith.”
Walrod said Seefried has always been respectful of the chain of command. “He has been mindful of his position as someone who is leading this organization, but also trying to follow the law of the land as it still governs him.”
The alias J.D. Smith was an amalgam of Seefried’s real initials and his mother’s maiden name that he hastily created when a gay student group at State University New York at Oswego invited him to speak about “don’t ask, don’t tell” in advance of Army Secretary John McHugh’s scheduled commencement speech.
Thanks in part to OutServe’s expanding membership, J.D. Smith quickly found himself in demand. Each interview provided an opportunity and risk. He declined the use of voice alteration equipment, but made TV appearances in shadow.
“I always had the policy of not changing my voice. It would add too much creepiness to it,” he said. “I got extremely lucky last year that no one ever found out in my office. If my commander had found out and approached me about it, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Joining the Air Force was Seefried’s lifelong dream. As an 11-year-old boy in Toledo, Ohio, he became obsessed with the dream of flight, attended space camp and won admission to the Air Force Academy in 2005.
“That’s Joshua. Once he has his mind made up to do something, he will do it and do it 100 percent or more,” said his father, Michael, a middle school principal in Colorado. “He has prepared all this life to lead in difficult times and that’s why he is doing this. He will fight for what is right.”
Seefried excelled on the college’s debate team. But he had a crisis of confidence in his junior year after his first boyfriend graduated and the relationship ended.
“I had come to terms with the fact that I was gay, but I was really alone. I didn’t really have any other gay friends there and I hadn’t come out to my straight friends at all,” he recalled.
Witnessing his distress, his debating partner asked Seefried if he was gay and assured him he wouldn’t reject him. Coming out got easier after that.
Now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is history, Seefried is looking forward to handing off his leadership role. He will promote a book of essays by gay service members he edited.
But first, he has to make it through Tuesday. He does not know how his co-workers will respond. Will they want to meet his boyfriend? Will they be proud of him? Will they understand why he adopted the persona J.D. Smith?
“You take a chance and you have to hope everything is OK. I think everything is going to be more than OK,” he said. “That kind of family-ness I see in the Air Force, that is going to be mine, too.”
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