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On March 3, 2012, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) celebrated the organization's twentieth anniversary at a dinner emceed by MSNBC news anchor Thomas Roberts. President Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett delivered the keynote address. The dinner honored SLDN's executive director Aubrey Sarvis, who earlier announced his plans to step down as leader of the group as soon as his successor is chosen.
Thanks to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, this was the first year since the organization's founding that openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers could attend the annual dinner without fear of reprisal.
The SLDN is a legal services, watchdog, and policy organization dedicated to bringing about full glbtq equality to America's military and ending all forms of discrimination and harassment of military personnel on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. A leader in the long struggle to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, the organization provides free and direct legal assistance to service members and veterans affected by the law and the prior regulatory ban on open service, as well as those currently serving who may experience harassment or discrimination.
Since its founding in 1993, SLDN's in-house legal team has responded to more than 11,000 requests for assistance. It strives to ensure that every glbtq service member, aspiring service member, or veteran who has a military issue related to his or her sexual orientation has a place to turn for free, confidential, high-quality legal services.
Since the successful repeal of DADT, SLDN works to seek an executive order or other official policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the United States military. It also lobbies to ensure an equality of support and benefits for gay and lesbian service members and their spouses and dependents. The organization also works to upgrade discharges of individuals who were discharged under DADT and to advocate for a transgender-inclusive military.
At the March 3, 2012 dinner Aubrey Servis was honored for his service to the organization for the last four years. Former chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee and later executive vice president of Verizon Communications, he joined SLDN as its executive director in October 2007 and is widely admired for his astute leadership during the battle to repeal DADT.
When he announced his intention to step down as SLDN's executive director, Sarvis, a veteran of the U.S. Army, told The Advocate, "It's not easy to leave SLDN. 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."
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. This lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of DOMA, is currently making its way through the federal courts. In February, the Department of Justice announced that it will not defend the suit but will allow the House of Representatives to do so.
Thomas Roberts, who has made glbtq issues a significant concern of his broadcasts, said that he was delighted to be asked to emcee the SLDN dinner. "They approached me a couple of months ago and I jumped on the opportunity right away. My dad served in the Army. I was paid for by Army health insurance so I only cost my parents 25 bucks. They love to tell that story: I was a cheap baby," he told Chris Geidner of MetroWeekly.
At the dinner, Jarrett spoke about the repeal of DADT and about change. "[I]n the Obama Administration, we talk a lot about change. Well thanks to the work we've done together, if anyone ever asks you what change is all about, you can tell them that change is finally being able to put a family photo on your desk. Change is being able to tell your coworkers what you and your loved one did over the weekend, or what you have planned for your family vacation. Change is being able to share stories about your family with fellow servicemembers while you're away from home, and living with the fear that you may never see them again. Change is knowing that if you make that ultimate sacrifice for your country, someone will be able to notify your loved ones. That's change."
She concluded by sharing a story about the recent White House dinner President Obama hosted for veterans of the Iraq War.
"At last Wednesday's dinner at the White House, one of the guests was Lieutenant Colonel Beth Behn. She's spent nearly two decades in the army, including service overseas in Kuwait, Korea, and Haiti, and two tours of duty in Iraq. Today she's a professor at West Point. She's accomplished a great deal in her stellar career--but one thing she had never done, until last Wednesday, was bring her partner of 13 years to an official event. So the fact that Beth and Julie were both honored by the President, and able to proudly sit, together, in the East Room of the White House--well, that's what change looks like to me. When President Obama thanked the military families, and Julie was able to stand and be recognized--that's what change looks like to me. And the fact that their children will be able to tell their friends that both their parents went to the White House--that's what change looks like to me."
Ms. Jarrett's complete remarks may be found here.
The following video outlines the work SLDN does in the post-DADT military.