DAEGU, South Korea -- On June 2, 2000, President Bill Clinton established the month of June as 'gay and lesbian pride month'. In 2011, taking another step toward inclusiveness, President Barack Obama added the transgender community to the official pride month proclamation. LGBT Pride Month was originally established in honor of the Stonewall riots of 1969. The riots were a turning point in a movement to outlaw discriminatory practices toward the LGBT community in America. The 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command Headquarters and Headquarters Company hosted its annual Pride Month Observance at the Camp Henry Theater, June 6.
"Pride is a celebration of authenticity," said Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, Deputy Commanding General -- Sustainment, Eighth Army.
Smith, the first openly gay general officer in the United States Army, was the guest speaker for this year's observance. Having enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Oregon in 1982, just one year after the Department of Defense instituted a policy banning gays from serving in the military, Smith spent more than two decades of her career hiding her 'true self' and compartmentalizing her personal and professional life.
In 1993, Clinton signed the policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law. To Smith, it felt like progress.
"Even though you couldn't know who I was, at least now, just knowing that I could be in the military, was progress," said Smith.
After much consideration, Smith made the decision to retire from the U.S. Army in 2009, after 24 dedicated years of service. However, the conversation amongst the military community and across America was shifting. The conversation to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law had started and senior military leaders were engaging.
"We have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," said Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when addressing the Senate Armed Forces Committee in 2010.
Due to this shift in conversation, Smith withdrew her retirement and deployed to Afghanistan. For Smith, Mullen had provided hope. On September 20, 2011 the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law was repealed, setting the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era.
"When I woke up that morning in Afghanistan, I thought today is different," said Smith. "For the first time in 25 years the weight of the world had lifted off of my shoulders."
Soon after, Smith was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. Once promoted to the rank of general officer, Smith understood her life would become not only more visible, but her compartments would have to go. Her staff would need to know about her personal life in order to assist her on a daily basis.
"My first thought was humbling that the Army would have as much confidence in me to allow me to continue to serve at that level," shared Smith. "But the very next emotion that I felt was panic. I had spent my life perfecting living in compartments."
By selecting her wife and father to pin her rank at her promotion ceremony, Smith was electing to out herself to the military community and what would soon be the entire world.
"The Army helped me prepare," said Smith. "They sent me to a special Public Affairs Course to be able to talk in public about my family situation for any media that might come up. Frankly, I didn't think it was going to be as big of a story as it was."
The following day, Smith realized she had not only made local and domestic news, but international news as well. However, as a result, the anticipated hate mail did not come. Not one person sent Smith or her family negative letters or e-mails. Every piece of feedback Smith received was positive and supportive.
"In a way it was like medicine that healed," said Smith. "Your entire life you get told you are a little less than. To be in [the] position that I was where from the general public I got positive feedback, it was healing to me … it helped me then to start to move to [a] place where I could push away [the] internalized homophobia and be comfortable with who I was without having to live those compartments."
As a military community, it is important to create an environment of equality and inclusiveness built on the Army Values. As leaders and peers, non-commissioned officers and junior soldiers, the responsibility falls to each individual within the ranks to create a culture that allows each member to feel embraced. As a leader, it can sometimes prove difficult but not impossible.
"I think that you have to get out of your comfort zone," advised Smith. "You have to have some conversations and do some education yourself that makes you uncomfortable. When you are able then to not only see other people's differences but take your place to [one] of comfort with difference, then you can set the conditions that will create an inclusive culture."
Our all-volunteer force is unique in that the things that make us diverse are the things that can bring us together. There is added value in our differences.
"We are a values based Army and we treat everyone with dignity and respect," said Cpt. Michael King, 19th ESC HHC Commander.