JD Smith only has a few weeks left of publicly living as a pseudonym. As the co-director of OutServe, the network of LGBT active duty military service members, Smith has been speaking out about the importance of connecting gay service members for nearly a year. OutServe launched in July 2010, rebranded from a similar organization, and it has already connected 3,500 gay members of the military via hidden social media platforms. Since it's technically still not entirely safe for gay members of the military to come out, OutServe's members are anonymous, and their names are closely guarded.
Last month, Smith and his organization announced plans for the first OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit, which will take place October 13-16 in Las Vegas. The summit will bring together LGB military personnel to discuss implementation of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the struggles that may accompany that repeal. 80 people, a large majority of whom are active duty members, are already confirmed to attend the conference, which will be capped at 300, although that number is expected to increase in subsequent years. The organization is also brainstorming ways to live stream the conference to include people who may not be able to physically attend.
News of the summit came on the heels of a new OutServe magazine, which is distributed to U.S. military bases and is available online. Plus, according to Smith, several other big projects are in the works. The Bilerico Project spoke with JD Smith via phone about OutServe's rapid expansion, specifics about the conference, and the reality of a post-DADT military.
Adam Polaski: How do you explain such a quick expansion for OutServe?
JD Smith: Our unique thing as an organization is the way we've structured ourselves. We have one paid contractor - our conference director - and that's the only paid person we have in our organization now. The rest are volunteer directors. What's given us the ability to expand so quickly and operate in a new environment is social media. We grew this organization from the bottom up and the top down at the same time, and we leveraged social media to build a grassroots movement. (Read more about OutServe's unique organizational structure from The Bilerico Project's Phil Reese).
AP: What are some of the primary thrusts of the conference?
JD: We want the active duty to learn about the new environment they're about to be in. During the repeal fight, everyone was saying, 'Nothing's going to change, it's going to be business as usual. And that's true for a majority of the gays who are serving in the military. But what we've learned from looking at the experiences of the British and the military members in New Zealand is that there are struggles. We've been looking at the people overseas - the Australians, the New Zealand folks, and the British - who can come over to talk to our active duty who are in leadership positions to tell them stories about how they are going to be able to lead in a post-repeal environment.
AP: What's the main purpose of the conference?
JD: We want people to get two things out of the conference. First, I want a sense of visibility in the military. I want people to see the magazine and see the conference and realize that there are other people serving in the military who are just like them, and that it is not a problem to be gay in the military at all. Second is pragmatic things that are going to help them - to talk to a British soldier who is gay in the military and say, "How did you solve this problem when this happened in your unit?" Or, "How did you approach and solve this issue?"
It's also about networking. When people show up to this conference, they're going to meet other friends who they can talk to about how they solved certain issues because, as much as we talked about how there's not going to be a lot of issues, once in a while there's going to be a problem in a unit, and people are going to need to know how to solve that.
AP: How much of a role does DADT currently play for gay members of the military?
JD: To the outside world, DADT is very much in effect. But for us in unit, it's been dying very quickly over the last few months. For people who have very unfriendly commands, they're put in a bad position. But for us who have commands that aren't hardcore on discharging anyone, DADT has been kind of dead over the last month or so.
AP: What do you see as the future of OutServe?
JD: We want OutServe to be absorbed by the [Department of Defense] to be a platform for the DoD to learn what's going on in their units. One of the things we have to realize is that we're not getting protected class status at all. We need an independent way to report things up the chain of command.
AP: Will you be dropping the pseudonym?
JD: I'm starting to shed off "JD Smith" here over the next few weeks. I'm starting to drop the pseudonym, even during this transition period. I believe that we're in the last 90 days of repeal, and post-repeal, I think that gay members should come out of the closet and lead by example.