Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and OutServe, two groups that led the fight against the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, announced their intention to merge into a single organization by this October, just over one year after repeal of the military ban took effect.
The boards of SLDN and OutServe voted unanimously on the plan over the past weekend. According to a news release, the groups will combine under a new name and one board led by a representative from each of the two existing organizations. In the time between now and formal completion of the merger, the boards and staff "will focus on unifying the two administratively, financially, and organizationally," said the Monday announcement.
"SLDN has enjoyed a close working relationship with OutServe and its leaders from the beginning," said SLDN board of directors cochair Mike Magee. "Indeed, their voices, though anonymous at the time, were an integral part of the fight to repeal the discriminatory 'don't ask, don't tell' law. Since repeal, we've worked even more closely together and in doing so, it has become more and more clear that our shared mission -- representing actively serving military and veterans, as well as fighting to achieve full LGBT equality in the military -- is better accomplished by uniting the two organizations and working together as one on behalf of the brave men and women of our armed forces," he said.
The younger OutServe started two years ago as an underground network of LGBT servicemembers connected through social media, but since repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" last September, the group has grown to include more than 5,500 members worldwide. During the process leading to legislative repeal of the military ban, the group helped provide information to the Pentagon's Comprehensive Review Working Group that completed an extensive report on the policy.
"This comes down to mission first, just as it always is in the military," said Josh Seefriend, cofounder and codirector of OutServe, about the merger. "Both of these organizations recognize that they are stronger and more effective together. It is a great day for both organizations and for the LGBT service members and veterans around the world, who need a strong, unified voice speaking for them at the White House, on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon, and among the American people. What began as a simple effort to tell our stories has grown into something we could never have imagined, and today's announcement that OutServe and SLDN will combine represents the next step in that evolution. Each organization brings its own strengths to the fight for full LGBT military equality, and we are stronger together."
Earlier this year, SLDN executive director Aubrey Sarvis announced his intention to step down this summer once the organization named a new executive director. An SLDN spokesman confirmed to The Advocate that the search process is still under way and an announcement is expected soon. The legal services and policy organization has been in existence for two decades, during which time it supported service members and veterans affected by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which lasted from 1993 to 2011.
Last week, at the first-ever Pride event hosted by the Defense Department, Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson acknowledged that "certain inequalities," such as spousal benefits for the same-sex partners of military members, persist after the end of "don't ask, don't tell." He said the agency was still in the process of reviewing what benefits can be extended within the constraints of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
In a video accompanying Monday's announcement, Sarvis and Seefriend explained that combining their organizations would help them more effectively wage the ongoing fight for full equality.