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Through struggles, to the stars

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
June's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pride month celebrations are relatively new to the Department of Defense and to the Air Commandos of Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, but the history of LGBT service members' fight to openly serve in the armed forces is a long and proud one.

In the very month and year of the United States' Bicentennial, July 1976, it was an Air Force technical sergeant--Leonard Matlovich--who began the long battle against anti-homosexual policy in the military. Intentionally outing himself in protest of the ban on gays in the military, Matlovich claimed that his discharge from the Air Force was unconstitutional and brought his case to federal trials just shy of the Supreme Court. He brought national attention to the issue of gay rights in and out of the military.

Even in light of the new legitimacy that Matlovich brought to the gay rights movement, he would not see significant change happen during his lifetime.

In 1993, then-president Bill Clinton enacted a compromise. Though LGBT service members still weren't legally permitted to serve in the military, a new policy called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would bar service members from asking an individual whether her or she was gay, and would similarly bar gay troops from coming out. Gay service members were still at risk of discharge from the military, but DADT put some control back in their hands, leaving them with the choice to serve if they were willing to keep part of their identity a secret.

That is where my story begins. When I joined the Air Force in 2009, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was in full effect. Gay service members had to pit fundamental values against each other, wondering how we could reconcile our personal and professional commitment to "Integrity First" with following the rule of keeping a secret of such magnitude from our wingmen.

In spite of the secret I had to keep clashing with the great pride I felt in joining the Air Force, I had high hopes for a future in which I could serve while staying true to myself.

It wasn't long after I joined before I saw a hint of the changes to come: just as I was headed home for winter break in the middle of my sophomore year of college, a bill to repeal DADT was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. It moved quickly through the House and Senate and across the president's desk, where it was finally signed into law.

The wait between December 22, 2010, when Barack Obama signed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act, and September 20, 2011, when DADT finally expired, was one of the longest I have ever experienced. In that time, I transitioned from being a college sophomore to a college junior, from a Cadet Airman to a Cadet Officer, and from being "in the closet" to being "out" among my friends at school. Slowly, some of my peers in ROTC started coming out, too. Nobody had to make a big declaration; they just talked a little more openly about things like weekend plans or who they hung out with outside of ROTC.

There was something important to learn from the early days of the DADT repeal. Many LGBT troops went undetected until they chose to come out, because they didn't serve differently from anybody else. They were and are great troops and great leaders who take pride in their work like everybody else, and who are fallible and suffer occasional slip-ups like anybody else.

What does distinguish us from our peers is that LGBT service members have handled adversity that has made us strong and resilient--the kind of people you want by your side when the going gets tough.

I learned in trial-by-fire conditions. I learned the value of trust, and how essential it is to stay true to your wingman. I learned that the only way to silence doubters and cynics is to strive always for excellence. I learned the humility of service. Faced daily with the decision of serving myself or serving the country, I chose to serve the country over and over again until the day I was finally able to not only serve, but do it openly and proudly.

This is something all troops should share in spite of any and all of our differences: an unfaltering commitment to service.

Who I love is so essential to why I serve and so irrelevant to how I serve. There are a lot of great reasons to join the military, but ultimately, we join for the people we love and the country we love. Our highest aspiration is to keep them safe.

As positive changes in the military's diversity and inclusion occur exponentially faster, it becomes clear that each time we celebrate one 'first,' then another and another, we're living history as it happens.

The story of the military's progress only gets better. Two years ago, for the first time, the Pentagon joined the U.S. government in acknowledging June as Pride month.

Not even a year ago, the DoD took another step in the direction of progress: the Defense of Marriage Act fell, and it wasn't long before same-sex marriages were recognized by the Pentagon and military benefits began to roll out to same-sex spouses.

History is even being made here at Cannon: This month is our first time joining in on the celebration, with a luncheon and children's story times focused on celebrating diversity and tolerance.

The history lesson we're learning every day is this: Our Air Force is becoming a greater and greater model of our country's diversity and inclusion. The more people we allow to openly and proudly serve in our Air Force, the better our force becomes for everyone.