Not long ago, a childhood friend who was finishing up his time in the US Army reached out to me because he didn't know a single openly LGBTQ person at his entire military installation -- one of the largest in the world. We chatted about the military, even after 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and he concluded that the culture around him was still overwhelmingly conservative on such issues. Probably not headline-worthy news, for most.
This conversation led me to talk with others about their experiences as LGBTQ members of the US Armed Forces. Today I would like to share one thoughtful, respectful, and honest story from a member of the US Air Force. His story was originally published at ComingOut.Space, where many other such stories about coming out can be found from around the world. It is longer than the usual fare found here, but well worth the read, as it is an important voice in a conversation we don't have often enough.
When I joined the Air Force, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT) remained in effect, if only for a little while. I was jubilant when I heard that Congress had lifted the policy as I waited in line to receive my rifle one morning. At that exact moment, I recall hearing a Sergeant, who I looked up to, mutter under his breath just loud enough for the rest of us to hear, "fucking faggots," as he stormed past the clearing barrel. In this moment I fully understood that although DADT was gone, there was much work to be done. And as a brand new Airman, I remained silent. I even felt the need to express my own dissatisfaction with the repeal of the law to avoid hostile retribution.
Fearful of being labeled "the gay kid" or "faggot" rather than being known for the caliber of Airman I was becoming, I made decision to keep my head down and focus on being the best. Through tireless work, long nights and extra rotations I began winning awards at my first duty assignment; eventually, these merits built upon each other and became a steady flow. I was awarded BTZ in front of my flight and peers and when I was called to the front of my formation my Commander asked, "Are you not happy?" To my complete embarrassment I realized that I was not smiling. My expression was empty. I quickly threw on the face I had become accustomed to showing to the world: a hollow smile, the same one that I put on when my Flight Chiefs bashed gays when they thought there were none in the room. I was courteous and did what was expected of me. I shook, took and saluted, and then fell into the back of my formation with a greater feeling of shame than ever before. I could never know for certain the answer of the question that nagged at me: Would they have given this to me if they knew I was gay?
My plan had failed. Early rank, admiration, and a stupid plaque were supposed to make me feel worthy. Weren't they? I took a hard look at myself and came to the conclusion that as long as I continued to live behind a façade I would never be happy. Over the next few months I came out to a few members of my family and some of my peers. Although it was difficult at times, I felt liberated, especially when I found that many of my friends were supportive; in fact, they were excited for me! Over the course of a year it became known throughout my squadron that I was gay, but what was better known is that I was an Airman with answers, an Airman who raised newer flight members, and an Airman who could be counted on. I was outspoken but professional. The slurs gradually had faded around me, but they were not absent; a select few still refused to hide their intolerance. Although I heard stories from peers about Airmen attacking me for being gay, others were quick to defend my character and the personal attacks were eventually abated. For the first time, I enjoyed an environment in which I was comfortable and at home in my squadron, no longer distanced by hatred and fear.
Unfortunately, this security would not last. I was due to return back to the United States for my next duty assignment.
This time when I reported into my training section I was much more self-aware. Knowing I was no longer in my comfort zone, I decided to gauge my environment before I allowed others the opportunity to attack me for being gay. To my complete frustration, it seemed like the clock had been turned back. Every five minutes I would hear, "that kid is a faggot", "she's a dyke", and "this is gay, that is gay." No one had championed for gays in this environment. I didn't want to go to training because I was disgusted by these comments. Hours before the weekend began, our Chief, a man whose reputation preceded him, came to speak to us. He was a hero to the younger generation. During his briefing he joked with us, making us laugh. Then he joked with me. He made the joke that I was gay without any prior knowledge that I actually was, and I was momentarily the laughingstock of the room. I immediately reverted back to the self-conscious Airman I was at the clearing barrel years ago. I realized that there must be others in this fresh group of Airmen from tech school who were gay and were subject to the exact same intolerance that I was. I was so furious I considered making a complaint to the Equal Opportunity Office or the Inspector General. After several days of building the nerve, I decided instead to make use of his famous "open door policy."
I would be lying if I said that I wasn't terrified, which I confessed as I sat down to speak with him after closing his office door. Respectfully, I addressed what happened the previous Friday. I could see immediately that he regretted the way his words had affected one of his Airmen. I told him that I was gay and that while I understood that what he had said may have been light hearted, those kinds of comments could compromise the unity of our workplace and strike fear and shame into those who were not quite ready to make their sexual orientation known to the world. He assured me that what had occurred would never happen again, and that he meant no harm. He extended his hand before I left his office.
From my experience, I have learned that there have been so many great leaps made for equality in the past few years, but within certain settings in the military being "gay" is still something of a fictitious thing. Though people are aware that gays serve in the military, but they don't necessarily think that there is somebody gay in their unit. This lack of awareness allows them to demean gays -- often in the presence of gay service members -- because they are not visible if they haven't come out to their unit. Until this thinking is challenged directly, it will continue, especially if it is condoned by our leaders. But when a face is put to the name "faggot" or "dyke," others begin to realize that those so disparaged are their peers, friends, and family members. I am the same Airman and the same professional, but if we are to finish where "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" fell short, it's important for service members to see that they serve alongside gays too.
Being outed from duty location to duty location has become such a theme that I like to consider myself just out. It seems there is always someone before I show up at my base that does the ice breaking for me out of either curiosity or prejudice, either one has the same effect. Where this used to cause me a certain level of stress or disdain I've just come to terms that I have to explain myself less when the time comes which I can be thankful for. The past two years have really shown me the power of being transparent and approachable over gender and gender identity. Where I used to be terrified of what a sergeant or a chief would think about me I openly have thoughtful discussions at work over gender neutral PT standards, women in combat, my experiences before and after DADT, and transgender service members. Although I am not female or transgender I understand many of my coworkers see me as a glimpse into a world they wouldn't typically understand or feel comfortable discussing with their family members. So the constant outing has some redeeming aspects to it.
I am now in a place where I can blur the line between my professional life and personal life, I even have a date to the Air Force Ball this year in Washington DC and I'm ecstatic to take him. This blur is arguably most visible when it comes to social media. My point of being transparent cannot be more stressed over the events that have occurred over the past two years. On multiple occasions I have had service members, mostly male, reach out to me via social media. These connections have offered encouragement and asked for advice. Many have sought counsel over coming out to their units, vented over discrimination they had been facing in the work place, needed guidance on seeking retribution for these transgression, and heartbreakingly have divulged that they had been contemplating or made the decision to take their own lives. These members tend to be young, recently displaced from home, harassed in their workplace, and isolated. As my leaders are going through seminars of how to lead a generation of millennials in the military, they are slowly learning how to lead and support LGBT members and their unique struggles they may face as well.
My superiors do not condone or propagate discrimination in any form. Unfortunately, that is sometimes not enough to help someone before they have made an irreversible decision. As a non-commissioned officer (NCO) my perspective has changed and there is a small niche of Airmen that face problems I feel empowered to act upon. I don't pretend to have all of the answers but so far I have found the most effective tool at my disposal has been to lead and live by example. Personally, I cannot strive to fulfill this without living a life of authenticity as a gay man in the United States Air Force.
Read more stories like this at ComingOut.Space.