WASHINGTON -- A veteran advocacy organization that pioneered in pushing to repeal the military's ban on the service of openly gay soldiers is joining forces with a newer cadre of activists that began as an underground network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender troops.
The boards of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (or SLDN), founded in 1993 to combat the "don't ask, don't tell" policy launched that year, and OutServe, an association of gay and lesbian service members who connected anonymously on Facebook, voted over the weekend to combine. The merger will become final in October when the two groups meet in Orlando; the new organization will be called OutServe-SLDN.
"This is significant for both organizations united in their determination to finish the job for full LGBT equality in the military and committed to maximizing limited resources and the strengths and energy of both organizations," Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN's executive director, told The Huffington Post. "It is a logical progression for both organizations."
"This comes down to mission first, just as it always is in the military," said OutServe founder Josh Seefried, an Air Force officer. "Both of these organizations recognize that they are stronger and more effective together."
"One of the things OutServe brings is a new generation of leaders from the LGBT military community joining forces with the brave patriots and their supporters who have been waging this fight for decades," Seefried added.
The announcement by Sarvis, who enlisted in the Army at 17 and was honorably discharged just as the Vietnam War was heating up, and Seefried, who came out of the closet by changing his Twitter picture from a silhouette to his photo when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy ended at midnight on Sept. 20, 2011, marks a turning point in the struggle for LGBT equality in the military.
The two groups, which have worked closely since OutServe's formation in 2010, see the merger as a natural evolution. Their union melds SLDN's mission of advocacy in Congress and the courts with OutServe's membership structure, which numbers more than 5,000 troops worldwide. The joining of forces also marks a shift in focus, from providing legal services to LGBT service members facing discharge or discrimination to securing equal financial benefits for gay soldiers and their families.
It has been nearly a year since President Barack Obama's historic order to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and certify the military as ready to allow gays and lesbians to openly serve their country. Shortly after the repeal took effect, OutServe hosted the first conference of active-duty LGBT service members in Las Vegas.
And last week, in a scene unimaginable just a few years ago, the Pentagon held its first ceremony marking Gay Pride Month.
The groups said Sarvis would remain executive director until a replacement is named. The new, joint board will be cochaired by Seefried and SLDN's April Heinze.
"This combination is the first time two LGBT organizations of this size and strength have responded to their donors and supporters in this way to combine and focus their resources and achieve a shared mission," Sarvis said. "It's a sensible and historic step."
Watch a video about the merger here.