SAN FRANCISCO — 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.
When the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went away on Tuesday, so did 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 destroyed on his career. Even if no one asks, Air Force First Lt. Joshua David Seefried is telling.
“It’s all about leading now,” Seefried said 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. OutServe, which has grown to 4,300 members in more than 40 chapters from Alaska to Iraq, has had an exceptionally aggressive rise since its 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.
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 had to make it through Tuesday without knowing how his co-workers would respond to his sexual orientation.
“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.”