Illinois naval base starts first gay and lesbian support group

GLASS founders. Photo: Courtesy Ann Foster.

Sailors at the Naval Station Great Lakes formed GLASS, or Gay, Lesbian, and Supporting Sailors, earlier this month, making it the first-ever LGBT support group created on a military base is U.S. history.

The group, which aims to foster a military base free of prejudice, bigotry, harassment and violence, was developed on the heels of the official repeal of the military’s discriminatory policy against out LGBT service members, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. GLASS’s mission is to garner support from other sailors and provide a safe space to educate and discuss matters of sexual orientation. It also serves as a model for similar groups to start across the country.

Despite the termination of major discriminatory policy in the military, gay and lesbian service members often continue to encounter hurdles. One such hurdle is the issue of benefits for domestic and married same-sex partners. As same-sex marriage is not federally recognized, many service men and women are denied partner benefits, such as health insurance. Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy, Ann Foster, one of the GLASS founders, was talking with an openly-gay fellow sailor who mentioned her partner and children.

“We started talking about how, normally, if they were married they would have support,” Foster said. “One night we were all talking about how it would be great to talk to someone who was in the military, who has dealt with it.”

After careful consideration, Foster determined that starting a group where these issues could be addressed was something she could do herself.

“I had searched around to see if there was a group like it, but there wasn’t,” Foster said. “After Christmas I decided that if I wanted to do it now was the time.”

Along with two other sailors, Petty Officer Liz Greenwood, Seaman Beau Briscoe; and their Captain, Peter Litner, Foster and her crew created GLASS. Although, at first, some of the Sailors were concerned with how leadership would take the proposal for a new group with such a delicate purpose, the response was surprising.

“Our leadership has been so supportive,” said Foster. “We expected so much more pushback, but because our command has been such a great umbrella, if there were those who may not have supported, our command was there to to say ‘we are here to support them.’”

Since the group’s inception, they’ve held two meetings and have found support among sailors throughout the base.

“Unreal is the best word that comes to mind,” said Greenwood, a co-founder. “I’ve been so floored by the positive responses; people want to know how that can help, not only the gay community, but the straight as well.”

However, with the positive traction GLASS has attained, the creation of an LGBT support group within a military base does not come without challenge.

“The biggest hurdles to overcome were the common legal issues,” said Briscoe. “Any group within the military must develop bylaws and charters, Greenwood took that upon herself to develop.”

In addition to creating bylaws and charters, the sailors were required to present the idea in front of their peers over the course of a week. After receiving their support, GLASS held its first meeting in January and a little over a month later the Great Lakes Chapter boasts bi-weekly meetings attended by an average of 20-30 sailors. They have also garnered 400 Facebook likes and a barrage of positive reviews from other state bases.

“[Sailors] in Japan and Hawaii have been sending messages like, ‘Thank you so much,’” said Foster. “Some retired sailors have also given support wishing they would have served today, but now they can say I’m gay and I served.”

Both Foster and Briscoe have been transferred from Great Lakes, but with bylaws and charters in hand, they plan on taking GLASS to different areas around the country to feed the growing demand for gay and lesbian support in the U.S. Navy.

They will hold there next meeting March 12.

To find out more about the group or how to start a chapter visit Facebook.com/GLASSgreatlakes.