A group of about 75 people made history Feb. 13 at the Great Lakes Naval Station, north of Chicago.
It was the first public meeting of Gay, Lesbian and Supporting Sailors ( GLASS ) , believed to be the first non-academy, general base-sanctioned gay support group on any U.S. base in the world.
The Coast Guard can boast of having the first gay-straight alliance at a service academy, and such academies are located on a base.
The GLASS organizational charter was signed Feb. 10, and already other U.S. bases, including in Japan, have asked to see the bylaws to replicate the group in their areas. GLASS is thus an official Chartered organization of Great Lakes Naval Station.
This means that it is given the same weight and attention as the First Class Association, Chief's Mess, or any other Command-sanctioned organization.
GLASS, the brainchild of 25-year-old Petty Officer Ann Foster, got off to an emotional start at the meeting, held on base. Base Commander Robert Sullivan and other officers, sailors, friends, and representatives of LGBT groups celebrated the historic evening.
Members of the Chicago chapter American Veterans for Equal Rights ( Jim Darby, Patrick Bova, Ed Wosylus and Jean Albright, also of Windy City Times ) , PFLAG Chicago ( Meg and Fred Valentini ) and Links Pride Youth ( Tracy Katz Muhl ) addressed the attendees, who then enjoyed a social hour and celebratory cake for the event. There were other community representatives also at the event.
Several of the GLASS members were also at the Equality Illinois gala Feb. 11, and they spoke about how warm and accepting people at the gala were.
BMC Dena Partain, who has been in the Navy 24 years, is mentor and advisor to GLASS. "At the gala, veterans kept coming up to our table," she said, holding back tears. "They were just so happy we were there. … To have that support, I can't even describe it."
Commander Sullivan was proud of the event. "It was great," he said. "It is a good opportunity for those who have not been able to express themselves, to show the military is comprised of a lot of good people. You do your job, and do it well. That is regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. When we do that, we have a lot better country."
Foster, who is president of GLASS, was inspired to start the group in November after speaking to her roommate, who has a partner and is helping raise her partner's two children, about the lack of resources on base.
"I am overwhelmed," she told the crowd. "A month and a half ago, if you would have told me there would be 75 people, spanning the community, students, officers … . I thought if someone was just 18 and just coming out, I wanted them to have resources."
One of the many straight allies, or "supporting sailors" as the group calls them, FCSA Zachary Quirk, explained why he was involved. He said about his friend FCSN Robert Baumgartner: "If my friend is brave enough to stand up, I'm certainly going to stand up with him."
Foster, who has addressed an estimated 4,000 people during open training sessions, said she has received "nothing but support from the start. From our Facebook page, emails, and every single person who has come out to us …" she said, holding back tears. "The first thing people ask is, how can they help. I could not have done this without others."
Foster is leaving in two weeks for an assignment in San Diego, and she hopes to bring her experience in Illinois to that location. "We have our charter done and signed, all we have to do is take it to other bases." She said her colleague in GLASS, Vice President Beau Brisco, will be bringing the idea to his assignment, in Virginia.
"Never before in the military has this happened," Foster said, and this is indeed believed to be the first such group chartered on a base.
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen M. Lainez said the Department of Defense could not verify this because they do not track installation groups across the services.
A U.S. Navy spokesperson said she was not aware of any similar group in the Navy. Army spokesman Troy A. Rolan Sr. told Windy City Times: "Currently, we are not aware of an organization operating on Army bases."
OutServe, an association of actively serving LGBT military personnel, has more than 4,500 members worldwide. It launched near the end of DADT, on July 26, 2010, and therefore started during a time when its members could not be out. OutServe now has more than 42 chapters, many that meet on bases. The ones deployed such as in Afghanistan ( can obviously only meet on base )
OutServe spokeswoman Sue Fulton said while OutServe has chapters on bases in all branches of the military, it operates separate from the command structure, although there have been efforts to have some formal recognition. But such recognition would not happen for such an independent organization.
OutServe spokesman Josh Seefried said "OutServe local chapters have different procedures for different bases. Some bases are really starting to work with OutServe to adjust training at bases or integrate same-sex partners in military programs, such has deployment support for partners. All our chapters have a chapter leader ( or co leader ) that determines how their chapter is organized."
Seefried also pointed out that the Coast Guard Academy started the first gay-straight alliance at a U.S. service academy soon after the DADT repeal. SPECTRUM, a diversity council at the Coast Guard, started Dec. 1, 2011. OutServe's magazine reports that SPECTRUM is comprised "of two cadets from each grade, and with the assistance of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the academy's staff judge advocate, the Commandant of Cadets and the superintendent, the group promotes respect and tolerance for all, regardless of sexual orientation. … Other academies followed in the footsteps of the Coast Guard with cadet and faculty sponsored organizations."
Petty Officer Foster said that if there is a chapter of OutServe at Great Lakes, she is not aware of it.
GLASS is allowed to have posters in all the barracks, and Foster has been allowed to address large groups on base, including every Monday when new boot camp graduates start their A School orientation.
"Every week, new sailors come from across the street [ from boot camp ] and learn about all sorts of things, like sexual harassment, financial management," Foster said. "Every Monday, the Captain talks to the students about what it means to be a sailor. CSADD [ the Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions ] speaks to a new group every Monday, and they now mention GLASS."
Partain said that Great Lakes is the only boot camp the Navy has now, and after boot camp, about 40% of those men and women then attend A school at Great Lakes.
The Great Lake base Website states: "More than 25,000 military and civilian personnel work, train and live here. Our training commands and schools proudly graduate thousands of recruits and Sailors every year. The base soon will be 100 years old. It, along with the mission here, has been in constant change, allowing us to prepare Sailors for an increasingly sophisticated and technology based Navy."
GLASS Vice President Brisco said GLASS has been the greatest thing to happen in his life. He recently came out to his family in Oklahoma, and came out to his Navy friends soon after Don't Ask, Don't Tell officially was over on Sept. 20, 2011.
Brisco and several GLASS members attended a PFLAG Chicago meeting in January, and he said that was their first off-base event, and that it was a wonderful experience.
Partain said the standing-room-only launch of GLASS was unexpected, and wonderful. While DADT is gone, she said there is work to be done on benefits for gay and lesbian servicemembers. "Until DOMA [ the Defense of Marriage Act ] is gone, our partners can't be on page 2 [ of the military forms ] as a dependent," she said.
Commander Sullivan was not the only supportive person at the event. There were many non-gay people there, including Master Chief Leon Walker.
Commander Sullivan and Master Chief Walker posed for a photo with GLASS officers: Seaman and GLASS Vice President FCSN Beau Brisco; Seaman Jacob Canzoneri, ETSN, a supporting member; Secretary FC3 Liz Greenwood; President FC3 Ann Foster; and Advisor BMC Dena Partain,. Other members of GLASS were also introduced to the group, including Ryan Hollman, FC3; Marissa Nerey, FCSN; Treasurer FCSN Gina Champion; Seaman Robert Baumgartner; and Seaman Jocelyn Caro.
The GLASS mission statement states the group "seeks to foster a base free of prejudice, bigotry, harassment, and violence by providing a space for all Sailors to explore and increase their understanding of aspects related to sexual orientation and expression in an open and nonjudgmental environment. We support and affirm the diverse identities and lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual ( LGB ) Sailors as individuals and as groups, especially as students, staff, and faculty of Training Support Command ( TSC ) and their families, friends, and allies, by the cultivation of safe space, educational outreach, advocacy, visibility of LGB issues, information and referral, and academic and leadership opportunities."
Their Facebook page said they are a "peer-to-peer group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and supportive sailors at Great Lakes Naval Station in Great Lakes, IL. We are committed to providing support for our fellow sailors through advocacy, education and outreach."
See www.facebook.com/GLASSgreatlakes .
Also see www.outserve.org .
Back story: Petty Officer Ann Foster
Petty Officer Ann Foster was born in Reno, Nev., and grew up "all over the place," including in California and Colorado. She spent seven years in different cities as a photojournalist before deciding to enlist in the Navy at age 24inspired by the enlistment of her older sister.
She enlisted in the 12-week boot camp in December 2010, the same month that the U.S. Congress voted to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But she still had to live another nine months under the policy, because it took until Sept. 20, 2011 for it to come fully down.
Foster was interested in continuing her photography in the Navy, but there were no positions open in that field, so she is in fire control, which she said has been a perfect fit.
Foster, who was out as a lesbian before enlisting, going back into the closet was hard. "I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was," she said. "Not knowing, constantly looking behind your back, not sure what you could say. That was difficult. Now that it's not the case anymore, I can talk about my girlfriend [ a civilian who is in school in Chicago ] ." Foster related two stories about coming out to sailors, and in both cases she was the first openly gay person they had encountered. She saw these as teaching moments, and suffered no negative repercussions.
"We're all wearing the same uniform, just judge me first as a sailor," Foster said. "Another thing I want to get out of this group, is in this population of sailorswe go to school with them, and they also know we're gay, maybe then they will see we are not stereotypical or scary. We all just happen to be gay."
Foster graduated from boot camp Feb. 18, 2011, and then started "A" school at Great Lakes. She graduated in October and was waiting for her next school orders when she decided to start what would become GLASS. She now has her next orders, and that is to attend "C" school in San Diego. Fire control specialists attend C school for each of the ship weapons systems. Once she graduates this fall, Foster said she expects to be deployed on a ship by the end of 2012.
When Foster discussed the situation of gays and lesbians in the military with her roommate last November, it was because there were no resources on base, and there were different financial constraints placed on the partners and children of gays and lesbians.
"I started thinkingwhen I first came out, I could go to a group, and learn about what it is to come out, they would help answer questions. There was nothing like that in the military. It started from there," Foster said Feb. 14.
Foster went to the Fleet and Family Service Center on base. It is a place where all kinds of support is offered, and she told a counselor there about her idea for a gay and lesbian group. The counselor asked others, including Chief Partain, and the momentum for a group quickly sped up. This was right before Christmas, and by Jan. 5 the group held its first meeting, with about 20 people in the room. The name GLASS was agreed on, and Foster enlisted Petty Officer Greenwood to work on bylaws.
"Partain talked to us about what it was like, living under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and she was very emotional," Foster said of that meeting. "Many of us never saw that side of her. Seeing that, if I had any doubts before, that solidified the need. For the younger, but also the older generations, who spent their entire careers and never could say anything. She said she could never be fully a part of Navy she loved, she always felt like an outsider, and now she can be who she is. I can't imagine that for 24 years, or Jean [ Albright, Air Force Master Sergeant ] with 20."
Foster said after the group was launched, retired military on the base came up to her to offer their help, as did some officers.
"There has been amazing support," she said.
Foster said she also received strong support from her chain of command, including Captain Peter Lintner of the Training Support Center. "He actually seemed upset that it was a junior sailor who brought this to him," Foster said. "He was upset it wasn't a staff member who thought of it. It was a fresh-off-the-press junior sailor. It shows that this generation of sailors, and in the military in general, are a lot more open and accepting, than a lot of the older generation. But we didn't have any flack. The entire command, both admirals and captains, made it be known that we are a group of value that deserves respect. If you have issues, that's fineyou don't need to do anything, leave them alone. They said no discrimination would be tolerated."
Getting the charter approved "set a world speed record" in the military, Foster said, thanks to Greenwood's past experience in the non-profit sector. They also had to complete many forms and applications, and they wanted everything to be meticulously done, so it could be used on any base.
Foster said she is not worried about GLASS continuing once she and other co-founders move to other bases. "I know many of them want to be part of it, and know the direction I wanted it to go," she said. "People coming in now never lived under DADT. This is the first generation that started their entire career without having to deal with itwhereas for me, Greenwood, Brisco, and others, it was part of life."
Great Lakes Naval Station is headquarters to dozens of commands across the Midwest, making the impact of GLASS even beyond a typical base. Some 18,000 student sailors a year come through Great Lakes.