By Sgt. Inez Hammon | 14th Public Affairs Detachment
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Diversity can be one of a country’s greatest strengths. At the 2019 LGBT Pride Month observance, Soldiers stepped up to tell their stories June 17, 2019, at the Elkhorn Conference Center.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The riots were a series of violent acts toward members of the gay community stemming from a police raid that began June 28, 1969, and ended on July 1, 1969, in New York City.
Since then, the U.S. government has evolved from allowing employers to legally deny a person employment or to fire him based on sexual orientation — to allowing LGBT personnel to serve in the military, but that progress has been a five-decade journey.
In 1992, then President Bill Clinton sought to do away with the ban on gay people serving in the military, but was unable to garner enough support for such an action. The closest he came to lifting the ban was enacting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that allowed gay Soldiers to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret.
“I kept my secret, so I could keep my job,” said 1st Sgt. Melissa White, assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. “It became second nature to ‘be in the closet.’”
It wasn’t until 2011 when the contentious policy was repealed by then President Barack Obama.
Soldiers and civilians such as former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor and Staff Sgt. Patricia King, can now serve openly without fear of repercussions. They can openly serve their country in a capacity in which they are qualified.
White shared that she and her wife, Shelly, were thrilled when the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed.
The two made their debut to the public during a brigade ball in 2012.
“I’ll be honest,” said White. “I didn’t think I would ever see the LGBT ban lifted as long as I was in the Army.”
After hiding her true feelings, White now lives happily with her wife, and is preparing for the next chapter of their lives, retirement.
Recently, White and Capt. Alivia Stehlik were guest speakers for the observance.
Stehlik, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, often reflects on the struggle for all people to be treated equally.
“Pride is not just a celebration, it’s a battle cry,” said Stehlik.
Stehlik grew up in a military household and eventually commissioned into the Army as an infantry officer.
Stehlik married prior to going to Ranger school and spent a year on an unaccompanied tour in Korea. Upon arrival back home, Stehlik’s wife encouraged him to go to a therapist to figure out what was going on with him, because they both knew something wasn’t right.
“I always knew there was something different about me, but it wasn’t something I had the words for,” said Stehlik. “Even if I had the words, I’m not sure I could have said them.”
For decades, being transgender was a medically disqualifying condition for service in the Army.
Stehlik had a wife to provide for, so they both kept the secret.
In 2012, Stehlik applied to the Army-Baylor University Doctoral Program in Physical Therapy and was accepted in 2013.
A month before Stehlik graduated, three years later, a DOD policy was released which allowed open service by transgenders.
Now a transgender female medical corps officer in the U.S. Army, Stehlik is actively engaged in the struggle for equality for the LGBT community in the military.
She wonders if the accolades and promotions she earned were truly based on merit or something else, she said.
“I wonder if people treat me with respect, because I deserve that as a human being, or because they’re afraid to offend the trans woman,” she said. “I wonder if I get a job or am denied a job, because I’m trans.”
Progress has certainly been made toward the LGBT community since the Stonewall riots 50 years ago. But, as with any minority group’s pursuit of equality, there is still work to be done.