By Audrey Jensen
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Today, many people are still uncomfortable with organizations holding events for LGBT Pride Month, said Col. Gary Packard, U.S. Air Force Academy vice dean and professor.
“As a result, some Airmen are still unable to come out of the closet because of unwelcoming or hostile environments,” Packard said during his speech at the LGBT Observance Luncheon at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, June 20, 2018. “Where does this leave us today? How can pride events help us with this conversation? And if you’re going to have a pride event — why would you invite a straight, white, cisgender guy to be your keynote speaker?”
Packard, who spoke at the LGBT Observance Lunch at The Club on Peterson AFB, was a writer at the Pentagon in 2010, studying the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, an official policy in the military that allowed gay members to serve without disclosing their sexual orientation.
Packard said he was picked to give the keynote speech for the LGBT Observance, “because straight white guys like me need to hear this more than anybody else. In my opinion, every month is straight white guy month. You walk into the library and you will find history books of straight white guys. You walk through the halls of our military organizations and you will find mostly pictures of leaders that are straight white guys.”
Though issues surrounding the LGBT community have been part of the Air Force’s discussions for the past 30 years, it wasn’t always this way.
Before LGBT concerns were brought to light in the military, the Stonewall Riots occurred in Manhattan, New York, in 1969. Police raided a gay club that year and as a result, protests and riots broke out and continued for six days after. This was considered the start of the civil rights movement for the LGBT community in the U.S.
Packard said he joined the Air Force at 17 years old — almost 10 years after the riots, when women had just been welcomed into USAFA as cadets.
Packard said he didn’t understand what hardships minorities faced when he first joined the Air Force.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already an insider with my classmates,” he said. “Like most of them, I was white, male, Christian, straight, cisgender, and I wanted to be a pilot.
“I had every part of every majority group possible, and I unknowingly had all the power of privilege that came with being part of those majority populations — I didn’t understand the vastly different status of my classmates who didn’t come from the same background I came from.”
Though many Airmen were afraid of being discriminated against for their religious beliefs, gender or race when Packard first joined, “most invisibly, there were men and women who were worried somebody might find out they were gay or transgender, or who were struggling to find out for themselves.”
Eventually the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was implemented in 2011.
Though Pride Day started out as being just the last Sunday in June, the month itself went on to encompass several events for LGBT pride. In 1994, October was also designated as LGBT History Month, and in 1995 it was included in the list of commemorative months in the U.S.
In 1999, former President Bill Clinton proclaimed June as Lesbian and Gay Pride Month under Proclamation No. 7203 and in 2009, former President Barack Obama issued June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month under Proclamation No. 8387.
Packard shared a story of him and his daughter learning to play the piano to explain what he’s learned about inclusion.
“She was interested in playing piano and I mentioned to her, ‘I’ve never learned how to play an instrument.’ So I threw a risky proposition out there: ‘What do you think about taking lessons with your dad?’”
The two started taking lessons together, but Packard said he remembers not being the best at learning the instrument.
“I share this story not because it’s about music, but because a lesson I learned through this experience about inclusion,” Packard said. “I was extremely uncomfortable admitting to my complete lack of musical talent.”
Though Packard was confident in his roles as a dad, a colonel, a pilot and vice dean of USAFA, he was not as a musician.
“What made this awkward transition positive was both my daughter and the people who were teaching us at the studio were very accepting of me despite my ineptitude at the time,” he said. “It would have been easy for them to look down their nose at me for my lack of skill or talent — but they affirmed me and welcomed me into their circle. … They included me as someone of value into their community.”
Unlike his piano instructors, Packard said he and his classmates were not accepting of everyone when he first joined the Air Force.
“Sometimes the discrimination was overt through insensitive jokes or bigoted comments, and sometimes the discrimination was silent and systemic,” he added.
Now, 40 years after Packard first put on his uniform, 29 years after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was implemented, seven years after it was repealed and five years after the end of the Defense of Marriage Act, the conversation is ongoing, Packard said.
“While many things remain in limbo while the transgender policy evolves, one thing is clear on research: every time we increase the diversity of our force, the new members added to our service have added to our effectiveness,” Packard said. “It was true in the 1940s when we desegregated on the basis of color, it was true in the 1970s when we brought women to the service academies, it was true in 2011 when we implemented the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and it will continue to be true as we bring more and more people into our military service.”