I’m often asked by younger Soldiers and Airmen: what was it like serving under don’t ask, don’t tell? My response, “I was an actress.” Every day I lived a double life. I would pretend to be interested in men. When out with co-workers I would flirt with guys who flirted with me just so no one would question my sexuality. Although, this “cover” didn’t always work and often I would be asked by close co-workers or their spouses if I was a lesbian. I would quickly laugh it off and deny who I truly was. It wasn’t easy especially at large functions where it seemed that everyone had their spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend by their side; I couldn’t. Instead, if I was dating someone they would be in the shadows hidden in their camo uniform blended in with the crowd as I received an award.
Life was difficult but I wasn’t alone in this. There were many of us in the same boat so to speak. We got together far from co-workers or anyone that we would know just so we could breathe. There was a constant fear of being “outed” and due to this you always watched your steps very closely. Even though I was fully capable of doing my job and fulfilling my duties, I would have been kicked out if the truth ever came out.
2011 was a very exciting and yet scary year. We were pushing towards equality and getting don’t ask, don’t tell, repealed. Soon, I began my own personal journey of having to tell my family while for months I had been helping my fellow lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender service members deal with coming out and at times being disowned by their loved ones. I faced my fear of being disowned so that my family wouldn’t read about it in a newspaper article or Facebook post. I consider myself lucky. I wasn’t disowned but shown a deeper love from my parents who I can say have always had my back. My mom couldn’t believe that some of my friends and fellow service members were being disowned by their families when I told her. I’ll never forget when she said, “Then you need to become their family.”
That statement stuck with me. Family are those you surround yourself with who love you, accept you for who you are, and protect you. After that conversation a weight and sense of guilt left my body. Finally, I was free so to speak, but I still had some time before President Barack Obama signed those papers, so back to hiding I went, at least at work anyway.
Right before the repeal however, it was made known to my command who I truly was. A few of us were excited about the upcoming repeal and just days before we marched in the Pride Parade in Mannheim, Germany. Talk about a sense of pride to be marching with my soon to be open LGBT actively serving brothers and sisters. Again, I consider myself lucky. My command was supportive and made sure that I was protected leading up to the repeal.
After the repeal we celebrated. Stars and Stripes joined in on the festivities to capture the spectacular moments. The following day I walked into work receiving high fives, hugs and smiles. I didn’t know it but my face was on the front page of the paper from the celebration the night before. It was a liberating feeling being a part of such a military family that was willing to accept me. I hadn’t changed, I was still the same person, and still Staff Sgt. Carothers, the only thing that changed was that they now knew me better.
Was it always rainbows and unicorns with endless sunshine, of course not! Nothing that glorious can last right? I ran into and worked for those that were not as supportive. Those who were not respectful to my partner or LGBT Airmen. How do you deal with those individuals? It’s simple, rise above. Keep your head up, be proud, know your job better than anyone, and do what you need to do to stay successful. Did I mention be proud? Be proud of who you are.