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Countdown to DADT repeal: OUTmilitary.com is a social network that's time has come

Editor's note: On Sept. 20, 2011, the longstanding ban on gays and lesbians serving openly (or being discharged, regardless, if found out) in the U.S. military will finally be repealed, thanks to President Barack Obama's pen last December, and after the dogged support of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and senators and Congressmembers on both sides of the aisle. The change in law was followed by the hard work from upper echelons of management across all branches of service, all working together to cement certification, which took place on July 20. Over the next four weeks, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News will highlight people and organizations that are of relevance, as we move towards this historic day, for not only the LGBT community, but all Americans.

BANGOR, Maine -- Web services guru John McKinnon never personally served in the U.S. military, but back in 1992 while he was doing grad work at Oklahoma City College and then-President Bill Clinton's call to eliminate the ban on gays and lesbians in the military was being widely debated, he took great interest in the dialogue taking place.

The fact that this man -- who held the highest office in the country -- was talking about the possibility of gays and lesbians serving openly in all branches of military service, really caught McKinnon's attention. As such, the implications of open service where often a topic of conversation with his lunch buddies back then and he has kept tabs on the policy and its affects, ever since.

Twenty years later, McKinnon has taken what started as a topic of personal interest and created a life-source for gays and lesbians serving in the military -- a social network specifically meant to serve their unique needs.

According to its website, OUTmilitary.com provides: a supportive environment for friending, sharing and networking between gay active-duty military, vets and supporters in a post “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” military.

Although the group's tagline indicates it is meant for a "post-DADT military," OUTmilitary.com has been online since December. McKinnon launched the website within days of President Barack Obama signing the documents that committed to a repeal of the ban. Today, eight months later and just one month before the repeal officially goes into effect on Sept. 20, 2011, there are already over 3,500 members.

McKinnon expects that number to explode after that upcoming historic Tuesday in September.

The website is surprisingly similar to Facebook in form, fashion and function (time will tell if Zuckerberg and his minions will swoop in to force changes) and is very easy to navigate. McKinnon refers to it as a "walled garden" for our brave gay men and women to share photos, video, chat and network.

Created as a safe place for LGBT active duty personnel, reservists, veterans and even their supporters, OUTmilitary.com does not say no to anyone, unlike the military has for so long. McKinnon sees it as a very inclusive place where the focus is on shared military experiences and what it was like to serve under such harsh circumstances.

"There is nothing like communicating with others about your similar experiences," McKinnon said. "Social media wasn't my idea, but this particular audience has not been able to communicate because they were muzzled."

He hopes all ages and generations of veterans jump on board, and that is already evident by some Vietnam vets joining the fray.

"I'd like to bridge the generation gap and help heal the younger generation through the stories [of the older generation of veterans] and their own struggles with the ban and vice versa," he said.

Website is very interactive

McKinnon is extremely active on the site, welcoming new members and often engaging in groups and other online conversations. He is fascinated by some of the shared stories and hopes even more members speak up and share their experiences.

Many members have told him that the site has already helped them come to terms with their sexuality.

One female member in Afghanistan recently began posting in a "journal" fashion, sharing her day-to-day experiences as a woman and a lesbian -- living a life "in country" -- and in a region of combat. That is quite a set of circumstances. McKinnon was so intrigued by her posts that he has asked her to share more, but is aware of the shroud of uncertainty that still hangs over many members until Sept. 20.

"Active-duty members for a time were using pseudonyms, but that has changed a lot in the last two months," he said. Many have since opted to open up their profiles and make them "public" -- which allows any member to peruse them -- rather than keeping them private.

A great many others are still waiting to share their full identities, with scores of male members hiding their faces by using naked upper torso shots as their profile photos. The reluctance to "come out" of the proverbial closet -- even after the rules change and on a site McKinnon hopes members view as a safe place to do so -- may switch gears in late September; but they may not. The important thing is that members feel safe.

The naked upper torso photos may indeed even remain post-DADT, used less as a veil than as a standard male-attraction tool, but McKinnon was quick to point out that OUTmilitary.com is not intended to be a "hook up" site and anyone trying to turn it into such won't be tolerated.

"There is no nudity allowed, and no trolling," McKinnon said. "This is not gay.com. That being said, I want it to be whatever it needs to be, to make it a community."

For those who still want to keep their anonymity after Sept. 20, the site has incorporated plenty of security measures allowing you to do so. You can make your profile open to all, or tightly control access to only those you wish to share it with.

A mutual understanding

Although McKinnon was never in the military, he said his father is a retired Navy veteran -- and one of the thousands who landed at the beaches of Normandy during World War II. His older brother is also a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, who just happened to be stationed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

He has engaged his brother in conversation regarding the archaic policy on numerous occasions and was told that whether someone was processed out or not (in the Army), often depended upon the Commander at the time -- a widely known ambiguity servicemembers often grappled with under the ban.

So through family, McKinnon understands the sacrifices of military service first-hand, and as a gay man, the additional issues that gays and lesbians may face while serving. In addition to these connections, his own personal history was also in perfect parallel to to a gay servicemember's experience in the military: He was once an Eagle Scout, but eventually left the Boy Scouts when he realized he was gay, to avoid incrimination.

The homophobia in existence in Scouting has been widely reported and very little has changed over the many years of push and shove pressure between the Boy Scouts of America and (local and federal) government, as well as private citizens trying to overcome the discriminatory policies. The Boy Scouts are considered a "Christian" organization, after all.

The Scout Oath:

"On my honor I will do my best
to do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law,
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight."

According to Wikipedia homosexuality created a "membership controversy," ever since a 1991 BSA Position Statement said, in part, “We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts."

Clearly, McKinnon knows what it is like to have great passion for something -- only to be marginalized and even cast out -- not because of your dedication or performance, but because of your sexuality.

A native of Maine, McKinnon owns Interactive Marketing Group, a website and network hub that hosts dozens of commercial businesses in the state. His days are spent hosting, operating, publishing and administering the sites for those businesses, but OUTmilitary.com was his own idea, on his own dime, and it has become his "baby."

He is very proud of the website and is dedicated to making it a safe place for all gay & lesbian servicemembers, past and present, for many years to come.

More about OUTmilitary.com

Membership spans the globe and includes servicemembers not only from U.S. military branches, but also those of other countries, all eager to share their own experiences.

To join OUTmilitary, you only need to be an LGBT active duty, reservist or veteran -- or someone who supports this specific community. You can join by going directly to the website, or through your Facebook or Twitter accounts, which will import some of your data. Once your account is up and running, future log-ins can be achieved on the fly with one click through Facebook or Twitter.

During the registration process, you answer some general questions that later become part of your profile and set up the personal attributes of your profile. After that, it is very much like Facebook, with a "news feed" filled with posts from either people you have accepted as friends or others who have opened up their profiles up to anyone, and your personal page.

There are many "groups" you can join that have been established by other members; for example: Gay Poets & Poetry; GLBT Personalities (heroes, victims and role models); Writer's Relief (fiction, fantasy, fact or frustration); Out in Okinawa; LGBT Cinema-therapy, etc. There is even a group created by the hopeful producers of an upcoming DADT-related documentary, seeking input.

A series of forums are also available, many of which were started by other members, too: DADT Repeal Updates; The Double-Life; Trans; and Coming Out On Base, just to name a few.

McKinnon made sure to incorporate many of the standard application interfaces most web users are already familiar with; i.e., event exports to the iCal calendar application, direct interfaces with all the popular social media applications, the ability to add tags, photo sharing, foreign language adaptations and even instant messaging.

There is also a blog, where members can share with everyone whatever they wish; and an event page, where upcoming events relative to membership interests can be shared or outside events sponsored by OUTmilitary.com can be found. The websites of those sponsoring OUTmilitary.com are also just a click away on the border of most pages.

There's even a page offering a link to download the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) Guide to LGBT Military Service, meaning OUTmilitary.com also has the potential to be an invaluable resource aggregate for LGBT servicemembers all across the world.

One big event OUTmilitary has coming up will take place the weekend after the ban is officially repealed, Friday, Sept. 23. It is called Pub Crawl Seattle, and all LGBT servicemembers (male and female, active and veteran) located in the Northwest area are encouraged to attend. The event is co-sponsored by OUTmilitary.com and Absolut Vodka.

You can follow OUTmilitary.com on Facebook and can either connect your membership to Twitter (see link on right side of the main homepage once you have signed in) or just follow them on Twitter, if you wish.

Don't wait until Sept. 20 to join ... get in there now and get chatting with other like-minded people and prepare for DADT repeal in a way that can't be offered by your superiors.

If you have any questions about OUTmilitary before joining, feel free to contact John McKinnon at outmilitary@gmail.com.