Washington – Now it can be told: A prominent gay rights advocate who called himself J. D. Smith is in fact 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, a 25-year-old active-duty Air Force officer. At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, he dropped the pseudonym, freed from keeping his sexual orientation secret like an estimated tens of thousands of others in the United States military.
“I always had the feeling that I was lying to them and that I couldn’t be part of the military family,” said Lieutenant Seefried, who helped found an undercover group of 4,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender active-duty service members. “I feel like I can get to know my people again. When I go to a Christmas party, I can actually bring the person I’m in a relationship with. And that’s a huge relief.”
The 18-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy officially ended at midnight and with it the discharges that removed more than 13,000 men and women from the military under the old ban on openly gay troops. To mark the historic change, gay rights groups are planning celebrations across the country while Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will usher in the new era at a Pentagon news conference.
The other side will be heard, too: Elaine Donnelly, a longtime opponent of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, has already said that “as of Tuesday the commander in chief will own the San Francisco military he has created.” Two top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee — the chairman, Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, and Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina — have asked the Pentagon to delay the new policy, saying commanders in the field are not ready. But the Pentagon has moved on.
No one knows how many gay members of the military will come out on Tuesday, although neither gay rights advocates nor Pentagon officials are expecting big numbers, at least not initially.
“The key point is that it no longer matters,” said Doug Wilson, a top Pentagon spokesman. “Our feeling is that the day will proceed like any other day.”
Gen. Carter F. Ham, who was a co-director of a Pentagon study on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” said last week that he expected the effect to be “pretty inconsequential.”
That is not the case for Lieutenant Seefried, an Air Force Academy graduate and a budget analyst at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurstin New Jersey, who had to work in the shadows with the Pentagon in an 18-month effort to change the policy.
As Lieutenant Seefried told it in a recent telephone interview, in late 2009 a civilian instructor at a technical training course found out through social networking sites that the lieutenant is gay and began harassing him. Lieutenant Seefried reported the instructor in early 2010, and the instructor responded by outing him. Under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Lieutenant Seefried was temporarily removed from his job. But around the same time, Robert M. Gates, who was then defense secretary, changed the rules so service members could not be discharged by third-party outings. “That saved my career,” Lieutenant Seefried said.
Back in his job, Lieutenant Seefried began building what eventually became OutServe, a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender active-duty service members connected by secret Facebook groups and e-mail lists. In April 2010, he spoke for the first time publicly against “don’t ask, don’t tell” at the State University of New York at Oswego, but under a pseudonym he had hastily created for the occasion — J.D., for his initials, Josh David, and Smith because it is his mother’s maiden name. He asked the group of about 70 students and administrators at Oswego not to take pictures of him or out him on the Internet. No one did.
“It was a risk I was willing to take,” he said. “There were a lot of times I should have been caught last year doing this, but I never was.”
When Lieutenant Seefried appeared on television, his face was always in shadow, although he did not disguise his voice. “I thought that was too creepy,” he said. “I wanted to appear as human as possible.”
Then last summer, something surprising happened — the Pentagon reached out to him. The department was conducting a broad study of the effects of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” but was stumped by how to interview active-duty gay and lesbian service members without having to discharge them under the rules of the policy. Working through a civilian liaison to OutServe, Lieutenant Seefried gave the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation — which was conducting a survey of service members — access to his database.
When the final study was presented to the Senate, many of the quotations read at the hearings were from members of OutServe.
In December, he was invited to the White House when President Obama signed into law the bill repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I was there as Josh,” he said. “You can’t go into these events with a pseudonym.” Although other gay rights advocates knew who he really was, the Defense Department never knew — or at least chose not to know.
On Tuesday, the lieutenant will appear at a Capitol Hill news conference with senators who pushed for the repeal. In October comes the publication of a book he edited, “Our Time: Breaking the Silence of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”’ (Penguin Press).
Lieutenant Seefried said he was happy to say goodbye to J. D. Smith. “There’s not a day when you don’t think of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ when you live under this policy,” he said. “It consumes your thought process, it consumes your future, because of the fear of getting caught. I never thought I would see the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ during my military career.”
The article “Out and Proud to Serve,” originally appeared in The New York Times.