How Social Media Was Used to Help Bring Down 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
Josh Seefried dabbled in politics in high school — assisting on campaigns for mayors and congressional seats from his hometown of Aurora, Colorado — but didn’t see himself as an activist. After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 2009 and becoming an active-duty member of the military, though, he realized two things: one, he was gay, and two, if he wanted to fulfill his dream in the military, he would have to lie about who he was — something that went directly against the values of honor and integrity that had been drilled in during military school. “Admiral Michael Mullen said it when he was testifying about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:” ‘At the very core, we’re asking people to lie about who they are.’ ” Seefried tells Rolling Stone. “It’s impossible to go to work and lie about your personal life. It’s impossible to separate the two. You’re living a lie.”
Seefried — who dreamed of serving in the military since sixth-grade space camp — slowly began creating a network of other closeted members of the military, which came to be known as OutServe. Seefried harnessed the power of that network to help the Obama administration implement the repeal of “DADT,” the President Bill Clinton-era policy that required gay service members to lie about their sexual orientation. On December 20th, 2010, President Barack Obama repealed it, though it wouldn’t be implemented until the following September in 2011. Not long after its repeal, Seefried wrote a book about the experience, then the Air Force officer left the military, and began working in the yachting industry. He is, however, once again back in the governmental fold, now working in strategic communication for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” we spoke with Seefried about how he became the face of the movement to repeal the disastrous, homophobic policy.
Though Seefried currently works for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the views expressed in this interview are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. This interview, which was compiled from two conversations, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ten years ago, President Obama signed the legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Where were you that day?
I was being snuck into an auditorium at the Department of the Interior — that was the biggest auditorium the federal government has, so they did the presidential signing there. But even though the president signed the legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it actually did not take effect that day. So there was still going to be a period of nine months until before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was actually implemented. So I was still going to live under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for several more months. So I actually went to the presidential signing under a pseudonym. In the auditorium, I sat behind [Obama advisor] Valerie Jarrett, who I’d met a few times, and I was sitting right behind her and holding her hand as the president signed the repeal.
Josh Seefried and former senior advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett.
Rewinding a little: What was the was the culture like when you got to the Air Force Academy as a teenager?
It was very macho. You’re taught to be part of that team. You’re taught to think the same, not stand out. Being different was never an option. And I guess I kind of felt the same sexually, too. I never thought to be that you could be different.
So how did you come to realize you were different?
To this day, it’s kind of weird how can I came to realize it — I was trying to find other people online. And it’s kind of cool how I found other people. The Air Force Academy has its own zip code. MySpace was really big at the time, so I’d search for guys [near that zip code] that liked guys and girls, and do the same thing on other social media sites. And then, eventually, I would find people and [recognize] the background as the Air Force Academy. One of these people added me on Facebook and was like, “Hey, you’re friends with this one guy,” who was my best friend at the time. And he’s like, “You know he’s gay.” And I was like, “No.”
I couldn’t sleep that night at all. The next morning, we skipped lunch and we started talking. I was like, “Hey, I think I’m gay. And I found out you are, too.” We immediately got into a relationship. We didn’t know at the time, but our best-friend status was like we were already dating for a year beforehand, and we just fell into our relationship. And we dated for a good year and a half, two years after that. But he graduated while I was still there, and that eventually grew us apart.
After we broke up, to be honest, I had a downward spiral. And at that point, I just needed to start finding other friends. And so I just tried to find other gay people. And it was that zip code maneuver that I would use to find other people. And at that point, I’d just start connecting people. And we would go out on the weekends together. We had a group that would go out clubbing, get a hotel in Denver and go out. And this starts to happen at other schools: at West Point, the Naval Academy. It kind of starts to spread.
This was all going on your senior year. What did you do after you left the academy?
I immediately go to Biloxi, Mississippi, for two months for more training, and I’m like, “Hey, I can keep doing this!” So I look for other gays in the military down there. And I kid you not, the very first person I find is my instructor for my finance class, who’s going to be my instructor for the next two weeks. But the very first week I take my tests — first course — I fail it. And he calls me into the classroom and he shows me I failed the test. He’s like, “I’m gonna pass you. But just so you know, you failed it.” So, after everybody is called back in the classroom, I see the Scantron sheet, and it’s marked correct — even though it’s all wrong.
I showed my classmate, so he sees what’s happening. And my classmate knew I was gay. Later that night, I explained, this is not going to end well. And it didn’t. The following week, he’s like, “Hey, you passed. But you know what? I’m not going to pass you unless, you know, you start doing sexual favors.” And I was like, “I’m not going to do this.” And I turned him in. And the guy, you know, wrecked my scores. And at that point, you know, there’s just nothing I can do.
I’m essentially blackmailed. And the start of my career, it started off pretty badly. So I go back to New Jersey. And this investigation is underway, and they’re trying to investigate the guy and try to find out what’s going on with me. They stripped me of my job. They took away my ID card. I was literally at one point just cleaning the chaplain’s basement. And this instructor, while I was down there, he was, like, showing up to my hotel room, leaving threatening voicemails. And then they found out, through all the investigation, not only was he doing this to me, but other people. They fired him.
At that point, that’s when I fully kicked into organizing people, because people need friends. At the end of the day, we just need to find each other so we cannot be alone anymore.
How do you turn these Facebook groups into a larger community?
So I start to add people and say, “Hey, do you guys mind that we start adding people to this?” And everyone’s kind of in agreement, “Yeah, sounds great.” So once I get to, like, 150 people, I’m like, “OK, let’s start to break this out by bases. Let’s form chapters.” And this is where I get a little media savvy as well: Let me reach out to some of these organizations to get media contacts, to brand this as an organization.
The group never started to turn political until Obama brought up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his 2010 State of the Union speech. At that point, that’s when it really started to be part of that discussion; that’s when the group started to turn into a political machine itself. And that’s when we wrote [an open letter to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the Denver Post].
And what did that letter say?
Gates announced they were going to survey the whole military about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and how it would affect military. We’d written a letter that said, you’re studying all these troops, but you’re not asking gay troops how they would feel. And if you were to ask us, we would say a lot of us are already out in our units. And that’s a really big part of that missing puzzle piece, because if a lot of us are already out in our units, we can just say, “Hey, this wouldn’t be a big deal.” And that’s a really important part of the study. And that’s what they needed to know. But there was no way for that to easily get that information.
This is where I came up with my pseudonym, J.D. Smith: J.D. was my real initials and Smith is my mom’s maiden name. I had gone up to SUNY Oswego to speak, since students there were boycotting their graduation because the graduation speaker was the Secretary of the Army and he was pro “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” So I went up there to speak, and the university protected my identity. And that caught their attention, so they just reached out to us and said, “Hey, we want you to be involved in the study.”
As you were working with the military and with the White House, were they aware of who you were?
I always used a pseudonym with the military. I was always really respectful of that fact. We had a very kind of strict “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of who I was [laughs]. And I was always respectful of that policy. I mean, obviously, when I went into the White House, they had to know who I was. You can’t go into the White House under a pseudonym, obviously. And even when I went in today, 10 years ago for the signing, I went under my real name. They had to look like, you know, when the press was there taking those photos, you know, I had to be kind of off to the side. I look at all the photos that people are sharing on Facebook right now. And I’m not in those photos because I was not allowed to be. It’s a weird moment to feel today. Because it’s like, I do often forget: there was a long time period.
After the signing in December 2010, there was another nine months of waiting. What were you doing during that time?
At this point, OutServe was kind of gearing up. We were trying to figure out, what were we going to do next? How are we going to position ourselves to be supportive in the life after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” Because you’ve got to think all the other [LGBTQ] organizations are going to move on. They’ve got marriage to go for next. They’ve got the Employment Equality Act to go for. But we’re the organization that’s going to be there afterwards. So this is when we start and we’ve got to actually be the one that’s kind of pushing the military forward to get this this policy to actually implement.
[Around that time] we launched a military magazine worldwide, and we actually got it on military bases. OutServe magazine. And it was on a front of CNN’s page for like two days. And it was so funny because, I will tell you, it was the one thing that freaked out the Pentagon the most because they were like, how the heck did you get this into circulation on actual bases?
It showed that there wasn’t going to be a big issue, even before repeal ever came. We were doing these kind of shock moments to show that it wasn’t going to be a big deal. You rip the Band-Aid off; it kind of takes all the firepower away. They were like, “Oh my God, there’s a big scary gay magazine there.” And then three days later, the story’s gone. It’s like, see?
What do you remember about the day “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was actually repealed and you could reveal your identity?
No one at work knows anything about what I’ve been working on the last three months, at all. So I take a few days off of work. I remember writing on my whiteboard: You’ll probably need me. Here’s my cell phone number. I’ll hear from you. I’d asked the Pentagon to please call my commander to say something, to give a heads up.
And [the night before,] right at 11:59 p.m., The New York Times ran an article with my name. The Daily Beast ran an article with my name. Stars and Stripes ran an article with my name. I don’t know that technically makes me the first person that came out right when the stroke of midnight happened, but it probably does. But like, my identity got out, right then. And it was kind of cool because it’s just me and my friends. We had a drink. We’ve been working on this for so long, and it was kind of cool just for it to be over. Then I went to bed and then the next morning, there was a round of interviews; I went up to Capitol Hill. A really cool moment for me was that Senator Mark Udall — who had been a childhood idol of mine — I got to stand up with him on the podium. And just a slew of media everywhere. It ended with Rachel Maddow.
Right after I got off Rachel Maddow, I remember being like, we need to go to the hospital right now. My appendix was just going crazy. And I was being really hell-bent on going to work the next day because the whole time I was saying, “I’m going back to work tomorrow as usual because nothing’s going to change.” That was my whole talking point. I knew that this was about to change everything because I was not going to probably go to work tomorrow.
So I had to have my boyfriend call my commander to be like, “Hey, he can’t come to work tomorrow, his appendix is bursting.” And I felt like I was just like making an excuse, that maybe he thought I was out drinking, partying, and celebrating. But it was at that moment that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became real for me, because here’s my boyfriend explaining to my commander that something’s wrong and I’m in the hospital.
And what did it feel like after the policy was repealed?
Honestly, nothing changed work-wise. Everything was just normal. Everyone at work treated me like it was normal. And, you know, everyone actually respected people more because you were being truthful; they got to know the real you now instead of the fake you. Because you were lying to them every day, and I think they sensed that. So I as soon as you got to drop this act you’re doing, they got to finally get to know the real you.
Did you experience any pushback after that?
I never got any pushback at all. And I think everyone saw that — across the board. I mean, we were able to measure that because we had at this point 7,000 members in these Facebook groups, and we could get reports: Has anything happened? And the answer was no.
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