CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new organization for LGBT servicemembers and veterans is seeking to fill new needs as a long-established national LGBT servicemembers group continues to address challenges and changes in their national leadership and structure.
Two North Carolinians are among the 11-member board of the new group — SPARTA (Servicemembers, Partners, and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All) — which announced its formation this week. Mark Mazzone, who serves with the North Carolina Army National Guard in Wilmington, and Tania Dunbar, stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, say they want to form a new type of LGBT military organization.
“The equality movement is evolving,” Mazzone said in an email. “It takes an agile and innovative organization to tackle on the new issues for the LGBT military community and its supporters since ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and [the Defense of Marriage Act] are no longer battles for us to fight. In order to stay relevant in our role, our mission and strategic goals must align with the shifting tide of issues, from Equal Opportunity to Transgender Equality.”
SPARTA, said Dunbar, will draw on the strengths of its members.
“The military is comprised of people who think and work as a team. So an LGBT military organization needs to empower it’s members and allow them to do what they are good at, which is working as a team,” Dunbar said in an email. “We wanted to create something that worked for us as much as we worked for it.”
New birth follows turmoil
SPARTA’s formation follows leadership changes and controversy at OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (OutServe-SLDN), a group created by the merger of two existing LGBT servicemembers’ groups last year.
In June, news broke that OutServe-SLDN’s executive director, Alyson Robinson, was being forced to resign. Communication breakdowns led to several other staff and board resignations. Robinson, the first openly transgender executive director of a national LGBT organization, later announced her resignation on July 12. The organization also announced it was near bankruptcy. As a result, it closed its national headquarters, whittled down operations to basic support services and said they would begin paying off its accrued debt.
Dunbar says her new group isn’t meant to compete with OutServe-SLDN.
“Our two organizations want to accomplish many of the things, but in a different way,” she said. “SPARTA is the only actively-serving member-based organization of LGBT service members, and that’s why we created it; an organization for us, by us.”
SPARTA’s mission is “to support LGBT military members, LGBT veterans, and their families, while working to strengthen our military’s culture of inclusion.” The group said in its announcement that it would provide professional support, development and networking, while offering continued social support for servicemembers and advocacy for policy changes at the Department of Defense.
Dunbar says the group will focus on creating a more inclusive environment for transgender servicemembers.
“They are living under a policy that is worse than DADT,” she said. “if a service member admits to being Transgender, they will be discharged immediately. LGB people have the right to serve now, in the open, and now it is time for us advocate for our Transgender brothers and sisters.”
OutServe-SLDN’s former transgender chapter has announced they will be aligning with SPARTA. The chapter’s leader, Navy veteran Brynn Tannehill, is among SPARTA’s board members. In a statement this week, Tannehill said the transgender group believes SPARTA “has the combination of leadership and mission focus on transgender service needed to allow all of us to serve openly as equals.”
Mazzone said he is ready to take on his new leadership role on behalf of SPARTA.
“Creating change and being apart of something bigger than myself has always been something I’ve wanted to do, and being in this position gives me a tremendous amount of access and experience,” said Mazzone, who volunteered as the chief of staff for OutServe-SLDN’s North Carolina chapter.
Dunbar said she’s thankful for friends who share her vision.
“I have friends who trust me, and wanted to help me do something that I had been thinking about doing for years,” Dunbar said. “Many more friends had the same vision that I did, so we all worked together to start building this.”
Moving forward, the two leaders say they are especially motivated to make change in North Carolina. Mazzone said technology will enable SPARTA to connect with North Carolina servicemembers for social and professional support. Dunbar hopes their work uplifts servicemembers stationed in a state with an anti-LGBT climate.
“North Carolina is military power house,” said Dunbar. “Fort Bragg has the highest population of Soldiers on this continent. Camp Lejeune is “Home of Expeditionary Forces” and we have air bases and all kinds of National Guard and Reserve activities here, so of course there is going to be robust population of LGBT service members. SPARTA can make a difference in North Carolina where, again, LGBT equality is stifled. We can offer networking and support where there is none for us otherwise.”