In 1994, the company I was running, ApolloMedia, purchased the electronic rights to “Conduct Unbecoming,” the journalistic masterpiece written by the late Randy Shilts that provided the most comprehensive to date overview of gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. military.
Released in 1995, rich with photographs, video and complementary documents and articles, the CD-ROM contained ePost, the first ever technological tool enabling users to find, and communicate directly with, their elected representatives (through email for the few who had it back then, or by fax, simply by typing in your zip code). Rolling Stone magazine called Conduct Unbecoming “a political statement” and “an evolutionary CD-ROM.”
In the course of the production, we met and interviewed a small but dedicated organization that had formed a couple of years earlier, founded by attorneys Michelle Benecke and Dixon Osburn. In a very short time they had already become an invaluable resource for servicemembers becoming dangerously ensnared in the newly implemented, vague, unconstitutional “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, providing, in addition to life-saving information, free, confidential, high quality legal service.
The language of the policy, which among many insidious things, failed to distinguish between content and conduct. Saying you were gay was indistinguishable from being gay, and being gay was indistinguishable from engaging in same sex conduct. Even if you were a celibate, virgin who had never been touched. The very CD-ROM we were producing, if caught in the possession of a servicemember, would be more than enough to trigger an investigation and lead to a discharge under the DADT policy. (The Navy attempted to block release of the CD-ROM itself.)
Stretched for resources as word of their existence spread, a mechanism was needed to enable them to communicate as much information as possible to as many servicemembers possible. They also needed to communicate with the media, who had become reliant on them to provide accurate information as to what was happening under the policy.
And so in 1995, we built them a website, establishing them as among the first of pioneering non-profit organizations to turn to the Internet as more than simply a static, electronic marketing brochure. The information, advice and warnings on the website provided invaluable assistance to those finding the vague tenets of the policy almost impossible to navigate.
The organization — Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) — proved to be a lifeline to countless servicemembers. Having responded to over 11,000 requests for assistance to date, SLDN was a powerful and primary player in the repeal of DADT, and remains a critical resource in a post-DADT military environment, still worthy of support.
On January 12, 2012, SLDN launched a new online toolkit to assist veterans discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) or the prior regulations prohibiting gay and lesbian service in the military seeking changes to their discharge paperwork.
“Since repeal, word has spread rapidly about this opportunity, and our attorneys have experienced a surge in calls from veterans seeking our services. This toolkit will streamline the process for them and help us get results for them more quickly. We urge anyone interested in this assistance to contact our office and let us help,” said SLDN Legal Director David McKean in a SLDN press release.
According to SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis, more than 100 gay and lesbian veterans who were discharged under DADT have already sought to have their discharge paperwork changed or upgraded.
“Sometimes it’s for reasons of personal pride and setting the record straight about honorable service to our country. But often, there’s also a very practical reason, like urgently needed VA medical benefits or issues of employment. Employers routinely request discharge paperwork when reviewing job applicants who have prior military service. A narrative reason for separation of ‘homosexuality’ or a negative reentry code can mean forcing veterans to out themselves to future employers or being denied employment altogether,” Jarvis stated in a SLDN press release.
In September 2011, Melvin Dwork, a World War II veteran who served in the Navy and was discharged in 1944 for being gay was able to upgrade his discharge paperwork owing to SLDN’s assistance.
As the organization continues its valuable work and continues to use technology in pursuit of its formidable goals and objectives, I feel privileged to have worked with Michelle Benecke and Disxon Osburn, who quickly saw the resource value of a website beyond a simple fund-raising vehicle. From the outset, SLDN served as an online destination that could save careers and in some cases, even lives.
Our collaborative efforts relating to the development of the web site allowed us to explore and innovate privacy solutions that were virtually non-existent, so that accessing the site wouldn’t compromise the identity of its visitors. A site that made (and continues making) life better for servicemembers who served their country with honor; setting legal precedents that ultimately led to DADT’s demise; and restoring the respect and dignity they so richly deserved.
As SLDN prepares to celebrate is 20th anniversary this year, the release of their new online Discharge Upgrade kit suggests the organization will continue to build and innovate on its strong foundations and technological legacy.
Clinton Fein is an internationally acclaimed author, artist, and First Amendment activist, best-known for his 1997 First Amendment Supreme Court victory against United States Attorney General Janet Reno. Fein has also gained international recognition for his Annoy.com site, and for his work as a political artist. Fein is on the Board of Directors of the First Amendment Project, “a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition.” Fein’s political and privacy activism have been widely covered around the world. His work also led him to be nominated for a 2001 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.
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