LGBT Pride Month: 'Just be you'

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  • By Tech Sgt. Jasmine Reif
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
"I felt like I was living a split life."

"My recruiter told me to lie."

"My friends were angry I didn't tell them."

These are comments made by Airmen assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy at the LGBT Pride Month panel, moderated by Dr. David Levy, an Academy Management Department professor, June 16 at the Community Center Chapel.

Nearly four years have passed since the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, the U.S. policy governing the service of gays and lesbians in the military, which lasted until September 20, 2011. Since then, LGBT Airmen have been allowed to be open about their sexuality, but the transition to a more open Air Force has still had its challenges.

"I have interviewed many people and asked them 'What is it like to be you today?' and I've heard some great stories," Levy said. "Administratively, the (repeal of don't ask, don't tell) has been a non-issue, but it has been an issue for those affected."

Along with Levy, the author of "Attitudes Aren't Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the U.S. Armed Forces," three Academy Airmen sat on the panel and fielded questions about serving their country as gays and lesbians.

Maj. Nathan Vosters, the executive officer to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, is a former air officer commanding and Academy Management Department adjunt professor. He's been married to his husband Tyron Hensel since 2013.

Vosters said today's generation of Airmen and cadets is more accepting of a coworkers' sexual orientation.

"I expected the cadets to be honest with me, so I told them my story," he said "I expected resistance, but instead they basically said 'OK, good for you' and it was a non-issue. I think the changes (following the repeal of don't ask, don't tell) are harder for people from older generations."

A case in point, Staff Sgt. Stephanie Brushwood, the NCO in-charge of the 10th Medical Group's Neurology Clinic and Sleep Lab, said her Air Force recruiter told her to lie about her sexual orientation.

"I remember lying and feeling stressed because I was trying to do a good thing," she said. "I've had supervisors who were tolerant, but (tolerance) isn't always a positive word. I've been in the Air Force for eight years and I didn't tell many people because I was worried about being kicked out. I accidentally came out to a (medical) provider and she quietly spread it around, which was better for me because I didn't have to have awkward conversations with each person."

The panel members agreed that some heterosexual coworkers felt excluded or betrayed when Airmen, finally allowed to be open about their sexual orientation, did just that. Some took it in stride while other coworkers accused LGBT Airmen of violating the core values by lying about who they are.

"There were integrity issues, but not just for service members," Levy said. "I've spoken to Army Rangers and Marines who said their commanders knew they were gay, but because they were (fighting the Global War on Terrorism), they had no choice but to put the mission first."

Questions regarding integrity were an off-duty issue as well, Vosters said.

"My friends were angry I didn't tell them," he said. "I didn't tell them because I didn't want to put them in a bad position. I really believe that as a service we now 'walk the walk' and 'talk the talk.'"

Master Sgt. Debra Sheppard, the Academy's Basic Cadet Training program manager, has been married to her wife Natalie Sheffield since 2013. Before the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, she said she felt as though she was living a "split life," but can now be open about her sexual orientation.

"Coming to the Academy was a good time to start fresh, so I took Natalie to our unit Christmas party, but I think she had it easier because she's a civilian. The cadets welcomed us with open arms, but when I got married, a few of my senior cadets spoke to me privately because they were hurt I had not shared the news with them directly, and they heard about it from someone else."

Brushwood said Air Force leaders and supervisors can create the trust needed for Airmen to come out to them by 'walking the walk,' and make a positive difference in how comfortable a person feels about sharing their orientation.

"It is important to be open and true to yourself because some people will avoid the topic, some will ask questions and others will be OK with it," she said. "The key to coming out is trust and the key for me was to accept those who didn't accept me. We need to trust Airmen and not pigeon-hole people because of their age. Try not to assume things, such as asking people 'Are you married?' and then asking 'What does 'he' do?' Use different pronouns such as 'they' instead of 'he' or 'she.'"

The panel members agreed that while some may make the conversation about sexual orientation more difficult than it needs to be, the expectation of mutual respect still makes the Air Force a great organization to serve.

"I think intolerance happens everywhere, but in the Air Force there is an expectation that we're going to be respectful of each other and it's great," Vosters said.
Members of the LGBT community may have their own subculture in American society, but gay and lesbian Airmen and cadets are also members of a larger Air Force culture that fosters acceptance of all people.

"These Airmen set the example," said Col. Troy Dunn, the 10th Air Base Wing commander. "We need to give people the opportunity to maximize our potential in the Air Force. Just be you - just be the best you can be. When we put our abilities and talent together it makes us the best."