WASHINGTON, D.C. — Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director Aubrey Sarvis will leave his position in late spring or early summer, more than four years after he took the helm of an LGBT group that proved to be a vital player in the pitched battle over “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.
A successor has not yet been named, though the legal defense group for gay service members founded in 1993 has hired an outside headhunting group to begin the executive search process.
“It’s not easy to leave SLDN,” Sarvis, a U.S. Army veteran who joined the organization in 2007, told The Advocate in an interview. “But there comes a time to move on, and this feels right. I think the next phase of the battle can be reinvigorated with new blood, new energy. For me, it was certainly a historic time to be here. I was honored to have been here during the fight.”
Sarvis’s departure comes as the organization pivots into a new era — one post-DADT, though not yet “mission accomplished” on full equality. Gay service members may be able to serve openly, but they are denied crucial spousal benefits extended to their straight colleagues. Transgender individuals continue to be barred from open service, and many who were kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation seek upgrades to their discharge paperwork, which can affect future employment or reenlistment.
In October, SLDN moved to address benefits inequity with a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of gay service members and their same-sex spouses. The group, composed of active-duty and reserve service members as well as veterans, seeks parity in big-ticket benefits such as medical care and housing — benefits that the Defense Department has said it’s unable to extend because of the Defense of Marriage Act. Three sections of the U.S. Code specific to the military also define “spouse” to the exclusion of married gay couples.
The Obama administration’s Justice Department has a February 28 deadline to respond to the suit. Sarvis anticipates that DOJ will decline to defend the DOMA portion of the suit, as it has done in multiple legal challenges to the 1996 law now pending throughout the country.
With respect to the definition of spouse in the U.S. code, “I think this may well be a case of first impression for them,” Sarvis said of the Justice Department. “So I’m not quite sure how they’re going to respond after they consult with [the Defense Department].”
But Sarvis also sought to distinguish between the Defense Department’s performance in implementing DADT repeal and the continued inequality for gay service members. “The job that the Pentagon and the commanders in the field are doing on implementation is first-rate," he said. “We have no major beefs there. However, we felt compelled to bring this litigation. I believe that the Pentagon wants to do the right thing by all service members, including gay and lesbian service members, who are legally married in one of those seven jurisdictions” that permit marriage equality.
SLDN has had recent conversations with congressional members and staff to introduce legislation changing the definition of spouse in the federal code, though Sarvis declined to give any further specifics at this time.
Sarvis said he was heartened by quashed attempts to erode DADT repeal in the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed last month without odious amendments that would have barred military chaplains from performing same-sex weddings of service members in their official capacities, for example. However, an antiquated sodomy ban in military code known as Article 125 remains on the books — lawmakers' decision to leave it being an apparent compromise during bill negotiations.
“[Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl] Levin ended up walking a couple things back, and unfortunately one of those issues was Article 125,” Sarvis said. “I know he hated to give it up. But I think that he thought that it was a trade that he would have to make, and to come back and fight another day.”
Patrick Murphy, the former Pennsylvania congressman and Army veteran who was a lead advocate for DADT repeal in the House and is now running for state attorney general, said Sarvis’s shoulder-to-shoulder role in securing repeal proved invaluable.
“We met almost daily talking strategy and tactics. If it wasn’t for his efforts and the team that he led, repeal of DADT simply wouldn’t have happened,” Murphy said.
“Even during the darkest moments of the fight, Aubrey always had this quiet confidence that was infectious,” Murphy added.
Of the post-repeal world in the Armed Forces, Sarvis said there have been no surprises — positive or negative — nor does he see substantive threats to open service.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see rollback [on DADT repeal],” Sarvis said.
Referring to the presidential campaign and the rhetoric from GOP candidates against the wisdom of repealing the policy, Sarvis said, “Even now, you’re seeing Governor [Mitt] Romney beginning to moderate his position, whereas earlier in the campaign process he was saying words to the effect that he would probably revisit ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”
“But anything is possible in a new administration,” he continued. “Unfortunately, gay, lesbian, and bi service members are serving today under a new set of regulations, which provide for their service. Their service is not protected by federal statute. I think there’s a misconception among some folks that gays and lesbians are serving today under a new law that permits their service.”
Prior to his tenure at the legal group, Sarvis ran an independent consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and was also an executive vice president for public policy and legislative operations at Verizon. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, he served as chief counsel to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Richard Socarides, former president of Equality Matters and a White House special assistant during the Clinton administration, said Sarvis’s willingness to use nontraditional approaches not typically embraced in the world of Beltway lobbying distinguishes him as a real leader in the historic repeal effort. (Such tactics even included a Maine DADT repeal rally headlined by Lady Gaga that SLDN spearheaded in September 2010 as the repeal fight reached a fever pitch.)
“Here’s a former corporate lobbyist, who had been very genteel in his approach, but was radicalized by a process in which many people felt we weren’t being heard and weren’t being taken seriously,” Socarides said. “The greatest thing about Aubrey is that he was in it for the right reasons. He did not care about his own reputation. He did not care about what dinner parties he’d be invited to, and he wasn’t worried about what job he was going to have when he was done. He was completely focused on the mission.”
Sarvis, who joined the Army shortly after high school and served for three years prior to becoming an attorney, said he was not certain of what he might do next, though he’s interested in working to increase LGBT representation on corporate boards as well as supporting veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We’re going to have a lot of young vets coming home, some of whom are going to need secondary education, training, and counseling. It’s important to figure out how the programs and services are going to be in place for them. Our country owes them a great deal.”