JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. –
In 1993, the Department of Defense enacted Directive 1304.26, better known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Military law stated service members could no longer ask another service member about their sexual orientation or reveal their own sexual orientation. The policy allowed “homosexual or bisexual” members to serve, but only if they were silent.
Service members that identified as part of the LGBTQ community were not fully protected against unjust discharges or discrimination. An entire generation of service members were hushed up, forced out or never given a chance to serve and lead.
In 2011, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was lifted, which broadened the horizon of opportunity for members of the LGBTQ community to serve without fear of discharge and become the leaders the military needed.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Steven Bisbee, 633d Communications Squadron officer in charge of infrastructure and architecture, enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2014.
According to Bisbee, LGBTQ members felt the lingering effects of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The negative sentiments and treatment towards the community did not vanish overnight, nor were the people affected by the policy ready to be open.
“In the back of my mind, it’s gone. It’s lifted,” Bisbee said. “We’re finally moving towards the future, where you can be whoever and be a good person. That’s all I wanted to be.”
He was hopeful about his future but was still afraid of being openly gay. His uniform wasn’t the only part of himself that was camouflage, as he camouflaged himself as a straight male for protection.
“I had a fear about being open in the military,” Bisbee said. “Being a stoic person was a way to protect myself.”
Bisbee’s mental health suffered as he struggled with his identity. The moment he finally accepted himself came when he was in his 20’s. He could not keep comparing himself to others and knew the conflict he felt within his heart was wrong. Once he decided to be his true self, he felt free.
“It took me a good 23 years to actually love myself,” Bisbee said. “I think if you learn how to love yourself, the rest becomes so easy.”
When he first came out, he said he was fairly alone. He found friends that supported him and helped him build the courage to be out and proud in all aspects of his life.
“Those are the people I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Bisbee said.
Free to be himself and empowered to shape his destiny, Bisbee participated in more community engagement and volunteer opportunities. He saw the difference and growth in his leadership style and professional life.
According to Bisbee, there were not many LGBTQ leaders to look up to in the Air Force. He was determined to be the leader future LGBTQ Airmen could lean on.
“I’ll do my darndest to make sure I take care of people. I know what it’s like to not be taken care of and that became my whole mantra and my own leadership style,” Bisbee said.
According to Bisbee, honesty and compassion for those you lead are the keys to diversity and inclusivity. When leaders make it clear what their expectations are and show they care, people will want to follow them and stay.
According to Bisbee, it is vital to our integrity as the Air Force to be inclusive and have respect for fellow Airmen. These standards must be unwavering for all service members.
“Inclusion means that you have to recognize who they are as individuals and what they bring to the table, as well as, respect their opinions to empower them,” Bisbee said. Strength lies in diversity and our LGBTQ Airmen add to the military’s strength.
The Air Force’s mission needs capable Airmen to function. The greater the diversity of the total force, the stronger it becomes. According to Bisbee, the Air Force hunts out the best people for the job. It is leadership’s job to find active ways to build their Airmen up, regardless of their background.
Pride month recognizes and celebrates the contributions our LGBTQ service members throughout history have made. It acknowledges another part of our history and the extreme adversity members of their community have overcome. They have fought for their own rights and continue to fight for the rights of their fellow countrymen.
“For a community that has been abused and is still accepting of others, regardless of their origin — that is worth celebrating,” Bisbee said. “I think Pride month is not just exclusive to LGBTQ people but, it is the freedom to be yourself.”