LAS VEGAS -– In many ways, the centerpiece dinner of the first OutServe Armed Services Leadership Summit here was a standard military affair.
There was the pledge of allegiance and "The Star-Spangled Banner." There was the ceremonial playing of the five armed forces' anthems, with members and veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard standing at attention as their service song was played. And there were toasts to the commander-in-chief and a moment of silence for fallen comrades.
But as the first gathering of openly gay and lesbian service members drew to a close, there were also tributes to the military personnel whose earlier battles made this moment possible, starting with Leonard Matlovich, the Vietnam veteran who a generation ago took his fight against the Pentagon's ban on gays to his grave.
Now, looking out at the 200 active-duty service members, veterans and families in the room, the keynote speaker put into words what many were thinking.
"This is freaking amazing," said Douglas Wilson, assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and the highest-ranking openly gay official in Pentagon history. "After 17 years of the fear of what would happen to the military if gays and lesbians were allowed to serve openly, the thunderous answer is: nothing."
Or, as OutServe founder Josh Seefried put it, the massive buildup to last month's repeal of the ban on open service by gays fizzled like the Y2K scare in 2000. "More of us knew Sept. 20 as the season premiere of 'Glee' than the end of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" he joked.
Not everyone is as blasé as Seefried.
Ed Luna, a recently commissioned 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps who began nine years ago as an enlisted man, said the demise of DADT means he can finally have a personal life. Unwilling to lie about his private life, he refused to date other men so that he could do his duty as a Marine with a clear conscience. "That part of my life didn't exist," he said. Now he has been liberated.
"I don't ever have to spend another day pretending to be someone other than my real self," said Luna, who has been to Iraq twice and is now preparing for a career in military intelligence. While he has heard fellow Marines say "hurtful, terrible things" about gays over the years, he hopes that once they get to know real gay people in their units, the stereotypes will fall away.
"When people start to put reality to it," he said, "it's going to be somebody they went to war with, somebody who saved their life."
Despite high hopes and a celebratory atmosphere, most here agreed there is still much work to do before gay and lesbian military personnel are treated on par with their straight counterparts.
For Lt. Cmdr. Zac Mathews, a Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter pilot based in Atlantic City, N.J., he realizes that his fiance will not be eligible to collect survivor benefits should anything happen to him after they marry next June.
"It's frustrating and not fair," said Mathews, 34, as his voice cracks and eyes well up, discussing how his family will still not be officially recognized, despite his having been with the Coast Guard for 12 years. "It's almost a slap in the face. The Coast Guard and all the services preach that everyone will be taken care of, but that's untrue when it comes to gays and lesbians."
Until recently, there was no military support group for gays. But after being invited to speak to the Pentagon's Comprehensive Working Group, whose report paved the way for the repeal of DADT, Ariana Bostian-Kentes helped to start the Military Partners and Family Coalition, the first organization of its kind to provide support, resources and advocacy for LGBT families.
“It has not been easy” since her partner, an Army logistics officer, was deployed to Afghanistan last month, Bostian-Kente said. A civilian who works at a gay resource center in Ann Arbor, Mich., she wears a blue star pin that signifies she has a loved one in a war zone. Her partner Nicole –- she preferred to use only her first name –- was stationed at Fort Bliss, Tex., before leaving for her tour. In the five years they have been together, they have lived apart for half that time because Bostian-Kentes couldn't afford to give up her job in Michigan because she would lose her health insurance. They plan to marry after Nicole returns, but even then Bostian-Kente would not be eligible for Army health care coverage or help with relocation.
Despite her 10 years in the Army, Nicole plans to get out after her deployment. Unless, her partner said, the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed and same-sex unions are treated the same as straight ones. "Countless famiiles didn't re-up or join because of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' but we still have to choose between having a relationship and serving in the military, and that's a choice straight people don't have to make," Bostian-Kente said.
Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan chafes at the fact that her domestic partner and soon-to-be wife, Karen Morgan, doesn't have privileges at the Army commissary despite her nearly 20 years on active and guard duty. Karen, a civilian and stay-at-home mom to the couple's four-year-old daughter, has no health insurance and can't afford the $1,200 a month it would cost to buy the equivalent of what the Army offers to straight military spouses. And when Charlie's unit holds a welcome home ceremony next week after nine months in Kuwait, Karen won't be allowed to attend but their daughter will.
"It divides our family," Karen said. "It's hurtful."
Charlie, who is battling breast cancer, said Karen is as integral to her professional mission as any other military spouse. "I can't do this without her. I can't deploy in a combat zone without knowing my family is taken care of," she said. "Because she can't be part of my second family, my deployed family, it does set you apart as second class."
Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan with her fiance, Karen Morgan, at the Outserve Armed Services Leadership Summit. (Photo by Cathy Renna)