By Tina Ray/ParaglideFebruary 8, 2013
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Before the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in September 2011, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered servicemembers supported one another through an informal network. DADT, enacted in 1993, barred openly LGBT persons from military service.
But since its repeal, some have come forward to serve as mentors for other LGBT servicemembers.
Two Soldiers who have stepped into the leadership role and are willing to serve as gay mentors are Capt. Daniel Toven, commander and conductor of the Army Ground Forces Band, U.S. Army Forces Command; and Staff Sgt. Joshua Gravett, who is assigned to the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.
After the repeal of DADT, Toven said his picture was printed in OutServe magazine, which is dedicated to the empowerment of LGBT military personnel and their Families.
"OutServe had solicited persons and bios of people who would like to be featured. I came out publicly from day, one" said Toven, who had lived as an openly gay civilian prior to joining the military in 2003.
Toven said he initially intended to serve only three years, but discovered rather quickly that he loved the Army. Prior to the repeal of DADT, Toven said he refused to sacrifice his personal integrity by dating women.
Once, in basic training, a fellow Soldier asked Toven if he was gay. "'That's irrelevant and it's none of your business,'" he told the Soldier.
Except for that incident, Toven said he has never been hassled about his sexual orientation.
"My experience is colored by the fact that I came in (service) late in life -- pretty much psychologically, mentally formed," he explained.
Now that openly gay servicemembers are allowed to serve, does he want other servicemembers to step forward?
"From my experience, I think we can trust our Army leadership. We can trust and rely on the professionalism of our leaders," said Toven.
"Everyone needs to have the freedom to make their own decisions based on their own particular circumstances. But, the environment and climate will improve more quickly as more people choose to come out," said Toven, who took his partner to his assumption of command ceremony last year.
"My partner sat in the place of any significant other. We presented him with a coin and he has been welcomed by the unit FRG (Family readiness group), so other spouses have gone out of their way to ensure that he's invited to functions. I think that my command has set the example of what it can and should be like," he added.
Toven's command seems to focus on his abilities as a Soldier, not his sexual orientation.
Then Col. Daniel Baggio, former U.S. Army Forces Command chief of public affairs, said in evaluating an officer he determines if that officer has proper bearings, lives up to the Army standard both on and off duty, and is dedicated.
"He's (Toven) one of the best. He's not only a dedicated Soldier, but he's a dedicated person. He leads the way and sets the example for others to follow," Baggio said at the time.
Paul Boyce, FORSCOM deputy chief of public affairs, agreed.
"Captain Dan Toven is a dynamic Army leader who focuses on both the well-being of his Soldiers and their Families, as well as the many civic opportunities and musical outreach through his professional work with the U.S. Army Ground Forces Band," Boyce wrote in an email message.
For Gravett, serving under DADT meant that for eight years, he refused to date. Instead, Gravett said he devoted his time to constantly acquiring new hobbies such as sailing, running, diving and taking college courses.
But, on the first day that Gravett reported to Fort Bragg and following the repeal of DADT, he said he wore a shirt emblazoned with two words -- "legalized gay."
"I got some looks, but to my surprise, nothing derogatory. People tend to think you want to hide that (sexuality), but if you're honest about you, other people will support you," said Gravett.
Like Toven, Gravett was a member of the OutServe network. OutServe has since joined forces with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization committed to providing legal services to gay and lesbian military personnel and veterans.
According to Gravett, being an openly gay servicemember is easier because mainstream media has brought acceptance to the forefront, moving younger servicemembers to be more accepting than the old guard.
Last year, Gravett took his partner, Shane, to the unit formal.
"As far as I know, we were the first, openly gay men to attend a formal for the 82nd Airborne Division," said Gravett. "It was a good atmosphere. All my senior commanders from inside the unit came up and talked to him.
"The main thing is to not fear reprisals from anyone," Gravett said. "Don't live your life because you feel your unit is not going to like you or your evaluation is not going to be good. That's not the case," he said.
Both Toven and Gravett emphasized the importance of being good Soldiers which could go a long way to securing acceptance by peers and leaders.
Another network that Gravett uses is the American Military Partner Association that works to attain equality for partners of servicemembers.
"We're not asking for any special benefits, we want the same," said Gravett, who hopes that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a legal union of one man and one woman will be struck down, allowing LGBT servicemembers to share housing and medical coverage benefits with their spouses.
Currently, arguments about the constitutionality of DOMA are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but until it is settled, the Department of Defense must follow federal regulation regarding marriage.
When Sgt. Nicole Hart, Co. B, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, first joined the Army four years ago, she did so with the intent of never coming out.
Hart has networked with other LGBT servicemembers through both OutServe and through AMPA, she said.
"It's all just basically an extended Family to be able to hang out with and not feel different than anybody else," explained Hart, whose new mission is to "start putting a face on what it means to be a gay, military woman."
Like Gravett, she took her former partner to a unit function.
"We got our picture taken and that was pretty neat," said Gravett, who hopes the presence of openly LGBT servicemembers grows when others step forward from behind the secrecy of their sexual orientation.
"People will disagree with you no matter what -- you don't have to be gay for that to be true."