WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Before the DoD’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was repealed in September 2011, many Airmen belonging to the LGBTQ community struggled to be themselves at work. Now they are free to be who they are while proudly serving their country.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Staci Cooper, 131st Operation Support Flight Aviation Resource Management superintendent, joined the Air Force over ten years ago, before the DADT policy was repealed.
She joined the Air Force because she has always had a passion for the military since childhood.
“I joined because at the age of seven my family and I took a trip to D.C. for a cousin’s graduation,” Cooper said. “While there we visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That day solidified my dream to be in the military. I didn’t know what branch at the time, but watching that soldier guard the tomb gave me chills and I knew that I wanted to join.”
Cooper said she experienced biases against her due to her sexual orientation while going through basic military training.
“A girl in my flight attempted to get me kicked out of the Air Force, because she was upset with me,” said Cooper. “She went to one of our Military Training Instructors and told him that I fell into the category of the DADT. He proceeded to tell her to do her job and mind her own business.”
She said that once DADT was repealed, she was happy for those around her, but it didn’t really affect her until she married her wife in 2019.
“Now that we are married, we get all the same benefits that any other active-duty family receives,” said Cooper. “I know that there were a lot of other people who were affected more than me both before and after the repeal of DADT.”
According to U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Connors, 509th Bomb Wing Equal Opportunity NCO in charge, DADT prohibited discrimination against closeted gay or bisexual service members, but it also barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from military service.
“This meant that lesbian, gay or bisexual service members had to live in constant fear of reprisal or retaliation if their true identity was ever discovered,” said Connors. “They were allowed to serve but could never be on the same playing field as their heterosexual counterparts. It would almost be like having two personalities, who they are at work might not be who they really are at heart.”
The repeal of DADT meant people like Cooper could express who they are without fear of ridicule or negative consequence.
“People couldn’t be themselves and couldn’t share their moments of military pride and happiness with their family because they couldn’t even tell their family who they truly were,” said Cooper. “Every day I am able to go into work and be Staci or Master Sgt. Cooper. I couldn’t imagine being in the military where that wasn’t the case, but so many people went through that. They are the ones that paved the way for us to be open and be ourselves.”
Cooper said this Pride Month she wants to celebrate the people who paved the way for her to go to work and be herself completely.
“I would also challenge people who are not part of the LGBTQ community to get to know people who are,” said Cooper. “It’s all about learning new things. So you can turn around and be empathetic when they tell you ‘hey this is happening to me’, you can truly put yourself in their shoes. At the end of the day, people just want to be heard.”
Connors believes empathy is an important trait to have because the Air force is such a diverse force with Airmen serving from all walks of life.
“Promoting a diverse Air Force means we are able to learn from other people’s experiences and cultures and add value to our own lives that we may have not been able to have prior to joining the Air Force,” said Connors. “If we can embrace diversity among the ranks and learn from each other’s experiences and have empathy, there’s no doubt it will lead us to be a stronger force.”
June is Pride Month. It is a chance for people to celebrate diversity and gender variance whether or not you are a part of the LGBTQ community.