Throughout an Airman’s career, the “total person concept” is held as the pinnacle of what an Airman can be, not just for professional development, but also for personal resiliency. For gay, lesbian and bisexual Airmen, the possibility of being a total person was only recently made possible.
In order to serve, these Airmen were forced to hide who they were and deny their emotions for years, some decades, before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell freed them to be themselves.
“It feels amazing that you can just go out there and be yourself,” said Senior Airman Cody Mitchell. “Of course there are still some boundaries, but it’s refreshing to know the option is there.”
Despite knowing for quite some time he was gay, Mitchell wasn’t always open about his orientation. He struggled with it through high school and even when he came to terms with it, he didn’t come out.
“You never want to realize [you’re gay],” he said. “You never want to go through something that will get you ridiculed every day, so you go through an initial period of ‘no, no, no, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not’ but after a while, you have to accept it; you are who you are.”
When Mitchell considered joining the Air Force, he had to weigh hiding his orientation versus the benefits of becoming an Airman. In the end, he continued his emotional isolation and joined anyway, expecting a career of hiding who he was inside. “A good career” was his motivation above all. Still, staying in the closet proved difficult in an environment where integrity is the expected norm.
“It was definitely tough,” said Mitchell. “You’re thinking ‘he’ but you have to change that noun to ‘she.’ It’s just those little things you had to be aware of so you didn’t ‘out’ yourself.”
It wasn’t long before the precursors of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal began, starting with Judge Virginia Phillips’ injunction on the policy in October 2010. Mitchell’s situation, along with other gay, lesbian and bisexual Airmen, shifted as the repeal of DADT went into effect. Finally, he could be a whole person.
“I remember I was at my work computer and I read the article [about the repeal] and almost started crying at my desk,” he said. “It kind of feels like you’re a new person. You have to figure out how to take down that wall you put up.”
A few months after the repeal, Mitchell began to “test the waters” and come out to his coworkers. While he met some skepticism and apprehension, eventually his coworkers accepted he hadn’t really changed, but was just more true to himself.
“If anything, I think sometimes [being open] makes it better, because now we’re at the point where we can joke around and just have fun,” he said.
Mitchell’s supervisor at the time of the repeal shares similar sentiments.
“I think it’s better for him. He can confide in his supervisor without feeling like he’s being judged,” said his supervisor. “The [office] is a very close-knit group of people, and everyone from the top down was, and still is, very accepting and supportive.”
During a recent Pentagon event celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, expanded that majority of change after the repeal of DADT wasn’t in sweeping, large items, but rather in small, everyday things.
“Change is being able to put your family photo on your desk, just like everyone else,” Jarrett said. “Change is being able to share with your co-workers about your weekend or vacation plans. … Change is knowing that you’re free to be who you are and love whomever you want without fear of harassment or losing your job. It’s being able to openly embrace your partner in front of all the other families when he or she returns from a tour of duty, just like everyone else.”
Now, almost a year and a half after the repeal of DADT, Mitchell says it’s sometimes hard to believe the Air Force wasn’t always an open service, crediting commanders and other leaders for the smooth transition.
“It’s hard to look back to that first year or so when I was in,” said Mitchell. “Now it almost seems like a distant memory, because things have changed so fast.”
Ultimately, being open and honest has made Mitchell a stronger, more resilient Airman.
“It gives me a sense of confidence,” he said. “I put myself out there. If I can do that, I can do anything.”