Josh Seefried: In His Own Words
By Jerry Portwood
Photo of Josh Seefried by Gavin Bond for the 2011 Out100
The rumors, accusations, and innuendo surrounding the resignation of OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson less than a year after she was named the head of the largest LGBT organization working for equality in the military have been raging for several weeks now. That was followed by the resignation of Lt. Josh Seefried, one of the co-founders of OutServe, from its board. "Three years ago, when I started OutServe, I didn't know what the Human Rights Campaign was, and now I've gotten to see a whole cycle of… I've had a helluva roller coaster on this," Seefried said, during his first inteview since news of the organizations financial and leadership troubles emerged.
As The Advocate reported, there is little evidence of the trans-bias toward Robinson, however, the organization did seem to be in dire financial straits. In this frank phone conversation conducted from his base in Fort Meade, Maryland, Seefried admitted that there was a failure of the board, that he was planning on leaving the organization in October but that this "debacle" accelerated his departure, and that he has faith in the innovative ideas of the younger generation to continue to create and strive for the rights of current and future generations.
Although there have now been several reported stories on what happened at OutServe-SLDN, no one has interviewed you yet. So I want to hear your side of what's going on. A lot of people have blamed you and others on the board for being ineffective. What's your take?
I want to start by saying that this is about the team, and the team failed. It wasn't about individuals. This isn't a one-person show, we are a team, and mistakes were made as a team. One thing I've learned in the Air Force, and in my life so far, is that you succeed as a team and you fail as a team. I don't think the finger should be pointed at any specific person. I think we should own it as a team.
And when you say mistakes, do you mean financial ones, leadership ones, or were there other mistakes?
I guess mistakes isn't the correct word. We didn't succeed. At the end of the day, after the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and when the organizations merged, we should have seen the financial landscape we were in and immediately right-sized the organization. And we didn't. When we got down to the wire, where we didn't have enough runway space to right-size in time. We waited too long.
Was it basically a financial issue as reported?
I don't think we right-sized the organization as a team directly, we waited too long. Around May, we started to operate on a line of credit heavily. When you get that close to the wire, and you let people go, you still have to do vacation payout, and it's complicated. That's where the runway analogy comes in. You have to have enough runway to right-size the organization and stabilize.
We had several board meetings earlier on this year about what we were going to do, and all options were on the table: from closing the doors to going down to an all-volunteer organization. And there was a wide range of options and people disagreed on that. I think that's why boards exist—to have those healthy debates on what are the correct actions going forward. But we waited too long to take those actions.
I think some people may not be aware that the organization was operating that way, that it was a non-profit and people did have salaries and benefits, it wasn't a volunteer organization.
I think it's one of the things we didn't do the best. When we merged last year, we had a staff that had a lot of members, and I don't know if we did a good enough job of talking to our members about how this organization functions. That compounded the problem. By the time this debacle happened, and people started to come after my head, it just compounded that we didn't talk enough about what was going on. We were trying to be professional and not talk about personnel matters, but then you get in this debacle and people disagreed with certain actions and they made calls. That's the board's responsibility. At the end of the day, when the organization can't pay its bills, it's the board that has the fiduciary responsibility to fulfill. We were the ones on the line.
Often that is the gritty side of any organization, the leaders have to spend a lot of time raising money. Do you think there wasn't enough focus on the fundraising aspects?
I think one of the things that happened with us, people didn't understand what had to happen post-repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' I think they were beginning to understand in the LGBT military movement what we were beginning to do to push the ball forward, but I don't think we had enough time to make that happen.
Let's discuss the accusations and rumors that this had something to do with you or others being trans-phobic. What's your response to those accusations?
I think it's sad that was the narrative that took off because it couldn't be farther from the truth. I think Allyson is a great person and everyone else who may have stepped away and said things, I still have respect for them. There's still a job to do, and I will work with anyone who wants to push the ball forward, even after all of this has happened.
At the end of the day, it's about the service members. There's still service members who are hurting. Look, we're in a post-DOMA world, and there's still not enough information about what is going to happen with our military benefits. That's what we need to be focused on right now, not this infighting between each other. It's time for this stuff to bet set aside and to do the work—through whatever organization or whatever method.
One of the things people have asked, 'What do I think about this new group that split off, SPART*A, or other organizations that may start?' You know, I'm actually inspired by it. When I co-founded OutServe, my goal was to empower service members, and I get inspired that we now live in a world after the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' where service members feel empowered enough to do something like that. That wasn't the case. I'm excited about these groups starting up, and I hope more start up. As I said, it's the largest employer in the world, and one organization isn't going to be enough for 65,000 LGBT service members. I think it's great. I'm willing to work with anyone who continues to push the ball forward.
I wondered if other more-established organizations, such as the HRC, offered assistance or consulting advice on how to grow an organization like this? Or did you feel like it was totally on its own?
I think we kept everything internal; we kept everything within the OutServe-SLDN family.
So this could just be seen as growing pains of any fledgling organization?
Absolutely. And I think that feeds into a broader narrative: We have two big scenarios that is happening in the non-profit world and around the country. One, we are entering the post-DOMA world and the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' so you have a lot of the people who have been around awhile who are stepping away. For example, our board, after repeal, half of them stepped away, they were moving on. That brings in a lot of millennials and a different way of thinking, 'What does our movement do next?' and an older guard moving on. The second thing, millennials are actually entering the advocacy world a lot easier. There are a lot of millennials on the staff, but name organizations that have millennials on their boards. There's not many of them.
And when you say millennials, you are referring to people in their twenties? And you're now 27, so you're referring to yourself, correct?
Yes, I think it's 31 and younger right now. I am proudly a millennial. You can't name a lot of organizations that have people of that generation on the board. And I think that's a problem. You can't say that, we represent you, too; they need to have representation in those board rooms. And I think in a way, we as a movement, and as a non-profit, need to understand that we now live in a world where you can become an overnight advocate and organizations that stand up overnight get national press and push out. So I think we're going to have a lot more competition with the rise of millennials. And that's a good thing; it's not bad. That's start-up competition. Even in the LGBT movement in general, you have Free to Work that has risen really quickly for the ENDA movement, and they've come up in a start-up fashion.
For example, this new group SPART*A, that started up a few days ago, they're already chugging along that shows how much and how quickly things can change.
You started your advocacy in the shadows, you had to be secretive and work behind the scenes. You then transitioned to where you didn't have to be that person working in secret, was there a psychological change that you had to go through. Were there other people in the organization that felt similarly and it could have harmed the effectiveness because it changed the bedrock of how you interacted with one another?
I think so. I think that ultimately—this is the first time I've said this—but I was planning to leave OutServe-SLDN in October. I think it was time. OutServe was very branded with me, and I was part of that old guard and it was time for me to move away. I think it's why it was time for me to resign. You need a fresh start. Sometimes the leadership just has to walk away, and I was planning to do that in October. But again, three years ago, I didn't know anything about activism or anything. And I found myself from starting a simple group to being a co-chair of one of the largest LGBT groups, and the youngest. I was the youngest co-chair of any Beltway organization. It's not easy to be in those shoes.
So it sounds like there was some generational conflict.
Oh yes, absolutely. If you look at the first reports that came out it was, 'inexperienced board members.' That's the narrative that took off. So I absolutely believe there are generational issues here. I think that's what caused some of the… What would have happened if I was not 27? Would it have gone to 'inexperienced board members'? I don't think so.
Was it complicated having a mixture of active duty and retired military working together as well as people from various branches? Is there a breakdown of cooperation due to that?
I think what can create some difficulty some times is that a lot of us do have full-time jobs elsewhere. I am a full-time military officer; I'm a numbers person, I play in Excel and budgets all day. That's my full-time job, so when a debacle happens, it's hard to suddenly balance doing all this other stuff and do my Air Force career. At the end of the day, my No. 1 priority is to do my Air Force job, to be the best Airman I can be.
Have you seen it in any way affect your military career? Have you been passed over for promotions in rank because of it?
I have been affected. I am a Lieutenant, and I did miss my first promotion to Captain. The reason being, if you remember my original 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' story, I was blackmailed by my instructor who changed my test scores. That incident was very traumatic for me, so I never went back to correct those records. So when I'm at my promotion, those records were still incorrect, and it caused a problem. I will say, the Air Force has been nothing but supportive to correct this, and I'm fully confident that the issue will be corrected. But I was very disappointed when the narrative was, 'Why were you passed over for promotion?' I just want to set the record straight since there are rumors about that.
So you don't think your involvement with the organization has in any way adversely affected your career?
Absolutely not. I've had nothing but support from the military community and the Air Force has been supportive. At the end of the day, I should have gone back and corrected those records, but I didn't want to think much about it.
I don't want you to think we're getting off topic, but today we are supposed to hear the verdict in the Bradley Manning trial, and I wondered if you or the organization were involved in that debate in any way. Did you feel like it was the responsibility of OutServe-SLDN to weigh in on that?
I did take a personal stance on San Francisco naming him Grand Marshall of its Pride Parade. My stance was that you need to let justice play out. Once a judge makes a decision, that's when you should take any action you want. My personal views on what Bradley Manning did is that, it is my role as an Air Force officer to help my teammates. There's a huge divide with how the military views this issue and how the civilians view this issue. So I do think justice needs to have its course. And we'll see here in the next few hours. I'm actually on the same base, I'm on Fort Meade, so it's right here. We have people who protest outside the base.
Let's talk about what's next for you. Do you intend to focus on your military career or do you have other projects or advocacy work planned?
I don't have any intention to leave the military in the immediate future. I know that was one of the rumors floating around. I love what I'm doing with my job, and I want to continue with it. When I entered the movement, I was frustrated with how long it took, even though it was only a year or two that it took us. I think the people who want to change the world, change D.C. I think the amount of time it takes to get 501(c)(3) status, how long it takes to get that, I think that's an issue. There's an access issue. I want to change that system. I want to start something that is going to fuel those sorts of projects. I will be announcing that I have a new project that will be focusing on this because I think we need to foster more activists in this community and fuel the way people can create things.
I know the military in general can be very tough on one's personal relationships, I think it has one of the biggest divorce rates and relationship failure rates of any organization, so has this entire experience been tough on you personally?
It's not easy to be in the military full-time and then hold a very public position in a movement. Yes, it takes a toll, especially taking a public beating. You have to have a thick skin. But I'm inspired by the people I meet and the change that I see. I will never forget going into a new unit, and someone coming up to me and saying, "Hey, sir, you really inspired me to come out to my parents." That is what inspires me to keep going. Just having people talk and tell their stories, you can hear the emotion in their voice, and how much their lives have been changed; they are able to have new friends; they are able to start new organizations. That's why I really do feel motivated by that, the world's changed.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity
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