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Pride Month celebrates Airmen diversity

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Andrea Posey
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

MCGHEE-TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- Pressure to get your story straight, using non-gender pronouns all the time, worrying someone will see you out with your significant other, fear of losing your military benefits. These are some emotions Master Sgt. Elizabeth Aguirre, vice commandant of the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center here, remembers feeling before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011.

Under this policy, service members were not required to disclose their sexual orientation and military officials would not investigate. However, when a member’s orientation was made public, either intentionally or inadvertently, they would be subject to discharge.

“Imagine having to keep a secret, but it’s not a secret; it’s who you are,” Aguirre said. “You are never at ease with just being yourself.”

Aguirre left active duty in 2006 and did not return to the military until 2011 after the policy was repealed. She recalled one instance that made it clear to her that her career could end because of her sexuality.

“While stationed overseas, my girlfriend came to visit me and we went to a unit barbeque,” she said. “I guess we were sitting on a bench too close because after she left my chief called me in and questioned me about her like, ‘I noticed at the barbeque her hand brushed your leg and you weren’t quick to move it.’ I told him I don’t know what you’re talking about, we’re best friends.”

For Aguirre, this was the first time she felt at risk of losing everything.

“I love the military. I’m built for it,” she said. “I was thriving, but it was the first time I felt the gravity of what could happen if someone wants to get involved in your personal life, everything can go away for something that has no relevance at all. It was disheartening. I was fully supported and felt like I belonged with my previous unit, so this feeling was very new to me personally. I was devastated.”

After the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military changed policies to be more inclusive. According to Air Force Instruction 36-7001, the Air Force aims to attract, recruit, develop and retain a high-quality, diverse Total Force.

This is accomplished by ensuring a culture of inclusion to leverage the diversity of the nation for strategic advantage in Air Force, joint and coalition operations.

“There is no other country in the world so widely diverse, yet so deeply committed to being unified as the United States of America. The challenges we face today are far too serious, and the implications of failure far too great, for our Air Force to do less than fully and inclusively leverage our nation’s greatest strength—our remarkably diverse people,” published the Air Force’s diversity website. “Across the force, diversity of background, experience, demographics, perspectives, thought and organization are essential to our ultimate success in an increasingly competitive and dynamic global environment.”

Aguirre’s leadership also believes the Air Force would be lacking without her for her strong leadership qualities.

“Aguirre is my right hand person, confidant and is responsible for everything academically related to professional military education here,” said Chief Master Sgt. Shaun Withers, commandant of the Paul H. Lankford EPME Center. “Our organization wouldn’t be near as successful without her experience and passion.”

Withers believes having a diverse perspective and background helps foster team development and differing ideas on how to get after the mission.

“By having a more diverse organization, we allow for those different perspectives and experiences to influence decision making, planning and execution of our missions. Without diversity we would do the same thing over and over, and that is dangerous, it makes us predictable,” he said.

Today, the military encourages an inclusive culture and diversity through celebrations like Pride Month during June.

“I believe it’s extremely important to celebrate and remember how we got here,” Aguirre said. “We’re spending time to just acknowledge, share stories and experiences, and breaking stereotypes. I think it’s not something we can overlook. History is important to understand how far we’ve come, or you’re doomed to repeat it.”

For Aguirre, celebrating Pride Month is not only about history but letting Airmen know the military can be a safe place for them to be themselves.

“I think it’s saying the Air Force respects a new investment in you, and we appreciate and support you. It makes me want to work harder,” she said. “There’s so much judgement, hate, and negativity in social media now. We need good leaders to stand up for what’s right and not subscribe to something against our core values. I hope Airmen feel this is a safe space for them.”