FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Diversity is one of our country's greatest strengths.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The riots were a series of violent acts toward members of the gay community against a police raid that began June 28, 1969 and ended on July 1, 1969, in New York City.
The U.S. government has made progress since then, evolving from legally being able to deny a person employment or to fire him based on sexual orientation to allowing LGBT personnel to serve in the military, but progress has been slow.
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 Company B, 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It wasn't until 2011 when the contentious policy was repealed by then-President Barack Obama.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White shared that she and her now wife, Shelly, were thrilled when DADT was repealed.
The two made their debut to the public during a brigade ball in 2012.
"I'll be honest," said White, her brows furrowing into a serious expression. "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 now preparing for the next chapter of their lives - retirement.
Recently, White and Capt. Alivia Stehlik were guest speakers for the 2019 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month observance event held June 17 at Elkhorn Catering and Conference Center.
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 - not just open service but service at all.
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 Department of Defense 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 said she wonders if the accolades and promotions she has earned were truly based on merit or something else.
"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."
While progress has been made since the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, the struggle isn't over yet. There may not be any rioting today, but others like White and Stehlik are still fighting for their right to exist.