Today’s out gay military | Navy group at Great Lakes boosts Pride

The military is often an agent of social change, and the integration of out gays and lesbians is no exception. The overriding need to defend the nation, particularly during times of war, has sometimes forced military leaders to rise above the prejudices that divide society at large in order to fill their ranks.

World War II helped to spark the movements for racial integration and women’s rights during the second half of the last century. Overseas combat opened doors for women to assume workplace roles formerly filled by men only. And once the military demonstrated that blacks and whites could live together, the foundation of America’s apartheid society began to crumble.

World War II had a hand in the modern gay rights movement as well. Although homosexual acts were illegal in the military, countless closeted and not-so-closeted gay men distinguished themselves in combat. When the war ended, many gay men who had for the first time experienced the freedom of big cities chose not to return to small-town America. Instead they congregated in burgeoning gay havens such as New York and San Francisco, where they began to organize and develop politically.

Harvey Milk was among the closeted gays who served in the Navy during the Korean War. He was so proud of his military service that he wore a brass belt buckle bearing his Navy insignia until the day he was assassinated.

But the military lagged behind society at large when it came to gay acceptance. Despite polls that showed overwhelming public support for allowing gays and lesbians to serve, the Armed Forces continued to ban out servicemembers. In 2010, it was estimated that 13,500 gays and lesbians had been discharged under the military ban known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” since its implementation in 1993. President Barack Obama finally signed a bill repealing DADT in 2010, but the ban wasn’t officially lifted until September 2011.

Jessie Virga, 21, joined the Navy shortly before DADT was lifted, and she said the difference for her has been significant. Virga, who is bisexual, said she “was walking on egg shells” prior to the policy change that allows her to serve openly.

“Knowing that I can be who I am at work allows me to dedicate more of my thoughts and energy to work,” she said.

“I feel like you can’t give 100 percent of yourself to something if you’re not comfortable and happy with yourself,” said Robert Baumgartner, 21, an out gay man who joined the Navy in the final months of DADT. He said that he would have enlisted even if the policy had not been in the process of being overturned, but that “it was relieving” when it finally was.

“I was with someone (a partner) at the time, and it was great being able to include him in my work environment,” Baumgartner said.

Baumgartner and Virga are members of Gay, Lesbian and Supporting Sailors, the first-ever military-sanctioned gay, lesbian and bisexual affinity group. The group held its first meeting at Naval Station Great Lakes on Feb. 13, drawing about 75 people.

It’s fitting that the group formed at Great Lakes. The Navy’s largest training center – and its only boot camp – Great Lakes processes about 40,000 recruits annually. Since the days when Theodore Roosevelt was commander in chief, recruits from every geographic region of the country and nearly every religious and ethnic background have launched their naval stints and careers at the 1,600-acre campus in North Chicago, Ill.

GLASS has become a source of great pride to the gay, lesbian and bisexual sailors stationed at Great Lakes, most of whom are there to undergo training before receiving orders, members say.

Like the military as a whole, GLASS members come from a variety of backgrounds. “We try to keep membership as broad and all-inclusive as possible – all age groups, active duty personnel, veterans, straight, LGBT,” said Baumgartner, a native Kentuckian who serves as the group’s vice president.

Kristen Cross, 26, had worked at the Navy Federal Credit Union for several years before enlisting. She said that now she might make a career in the Navy, if she can get into officer training. The Navy’s new openness and the camaraderie she’s found in GLASS have helped Cross, who is bisexual, make the transition to military life.

Members engage in organized events such as cookouts and bowling nights. They field calls from recruits who are struggling with coming-out issues or who have standard policy questions.

“Just to be able to go to a GLASS meeting where there are other people like them makes it easier to come out,” Virga said.

The only report of harassment the group has received so far was that someone removed a flyer announcing a GLASS meeting.

Formed by servicemembers, the group got immediate and enthusiastic support from Great Lakes command, said Great Lakes spokesman Matt Mogle.

“The captain (Randall J. Lynch) thinks this is one of the greatest things ever,” Mogle said. “He gives them great support.”

In fact, Lynch famously is said to have responded to the request to form GLASS by saying, “I wish I’d thought of it myself.”

“It was pretty much just a matter of filling out the paper work, just like for any other group,” Baumgartner said.

GLASS members say the geographic location of Great Lakes has played a role in facilitating the development of the group, which regularly attracts 25 to 30 people to its meetings. The phenomenon that natives call “Midwest nice” has allowed members to feel comfortable off base as well as on base. Locals in the area surrounding the base are very welcoming, they say.

“I wear my GLASS T-shirt out all the time in the area,” Virga said.

“The support we’ve had from the local community and the local media in the region, particularly Chicago, has really made a difference,” Baumgartner said. Spin, a gay bar in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, staged a fundraiser for the group.

GLASS members plan to march in the Pride parades in both Milwaukee and Chicago this year.

As gay, lesbian and bisexual sailors trained at Great Lakes receive duty orders to other stations, they are taking the concept of GLASS with them and trying to form chapters on other bases, Cross said. GLASS co-founder Ann Foster is said to be currently trying to start a group in San Diego.

Disparities

Despite all the positive developments for gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers, great disparities remain.

“I hear the fact that if a person is sent overseas, a partner isn’t allowed to travel with them,” said Ellen Kozel, president and director of Milwaukee’s Veterans for Diversity inc. (formerly “Vets do Ask, do Tell”).

“Transgender people aren’t covered under the repeal. Housing isn’t covered under the repeal. I believe that medical benefits for partners aren’t covered. So there’s still a lot of things that regular soldiers and sailors are entitled to that aren’t available to gay soldiers and sailors.”

GLASS members acknowledge the disparities but maintain that their desire to serve the country makes it worth enduring the downside.

“You have to learn to take one for the team in the military for the greater good,” Virga said.

“Anything you get into, there’s going to be pros and cons,” Cros added. “If things do change, that would be great.”

Former Army drill sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom said the lingering disparities mean there is still a lot of work to be done before equality is achieved in the Armed Forces. A native Milwaukeean, Ben-Shalom was the first gay or lesbian servicemember ever to be reinstated to her position – by court order – in the United States military after being discharged for her sexual orientation.

Even though the Army eventually forced Ben-Shalom out, her successful service as an out lesbian in the U.S. Army Reserves undermined the military’s opposition.

“I don’t want tolerance,” Ben-Shalom said. “I want the same rights, protections and responsibilities as every other citizen. We’ve been dying for our country all along, although we couldn’t say anything about it.”

Ben-Shalom warns that while gay, lesbian and bisexual personnel are protected at Naval Station Great Lakes by enlightened leadership, conditions might be different “when they might go on to other commands that aren’t so enlightened.”

“Do they intend to have a network, so they can get the word out and challenge nastiness?” Ben-Shalom asked.

Still, she said she would rejoin the Army if she could. In fact, the first thing she thought when DADT was lifted was, “whether I could go back in the military.”

“It was my privilege and my pride to be of service to my country,” she said. “Just because America doesn’t love me as much as I love her, I shouldn’t turn my back. I was proud to wear the uniform of my country.”

But she urged activists not to stop until there’s full equality for LGBT people in the Armed Forces.

“I think it’s time to stop being complacent,” she said. “Look at all the energy after Stonewall. We need to go back to our roots.”

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