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NEWS | June 30, 2014

Monster in the closet: An Airman fights prejudice

By Senior Airman Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

"No one will accept you, no matter where you go."

Her grandmother's words hit hard as she made her way back to her small room in Petersburg, Virginia. If anything, they just made her more determined to complete the Delayed Entry Program, make her way to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and become the Airman she had always wanted to be.

That was six years ago. Now, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Sharnique Braxton juggles her computer operations analyst career, an Army wife in Texas and an inquisitive 4-year-old daughter.

As a lesbian joining in 2008, she coped with a problem many U.S. Service members never have to face - being told her lifestyle isn't right for the Air Force.

"I entered before Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, and honestly it didn't matter to me," said Braxton. "I wasn't going to stay in a home that didn't accept me, and even if I had to hide it from the Air Force at the time, it was better than nothing. Not to mention I wanted to be in the military for a long time."

Braxton's perception of the Air Force was similar to many others - she believed everyone would be against her lifestyle. She feared, even if it didn't impact her career, her Air Force family would shun her. So she tried to fit the mold.

"I dated men when I joined even though I knew it wasn't really me," explained Braxton. "To use a common phrase, I was afraid to 'come out of the closet' because when I did that in high school, my friends and family treated me like monster. The monster 'in the closet.'"

After a year-and-a-half long relationship with a man, Braxton was left with the first true love of her life - her daughter, Diamond.

"Diamond was the first person who didn't care at all what my sexuality was," said Braxton. "I could be with a man or a woman and she would still be the little terror I love so much."

With the jewel of her life in the picture, Braxton found it easier to ignore the pain of continuously hiding her true self. She became absorbed in school and work, never allowing herself time to face her secret.

Even when the Air Force repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell two years after Diamond's birth, Braxton wasn't convinced this would make a real change.

"Of course I was happy to see the Air Force taking steps, but I thought I knew better," said Braxton. "I saw the Air Force making a political statement, but I knew that wouldn't change perception."

Braxton knew the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell wouldn't magically make her coworkers accept her lifestyle. If anything, she believed some Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual Airmen would be disrespected due to prejudice.

"I knew an LGBT Airman who deployed after the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and made a friend of the same sex," explained Braxton. "After the Airman came out to his good friend, who he was not sexually interested in, his friend ostracized him. It made the deployment harder for both men, and I wasn't willing to face that."

Regardless of her feelings, she did eventually pursue women, albeit quietly. Only her closest friends knew of her lifestyle, and she was okay with that. During this time, she met her spouse, U.S. Army Sgt. LaToya Morris while on deployment. The two married quietly in Washington D.C.

She didn't tell anyone of her union except her closest friends. Even her grandmother who raised her was kept in the dark, as she wasn't willing to have her life questioned again.

"Hiding was just easier, honestly. I didn't have to answer to anybody or argue what comes naturally to me," said Braxton. "I didn't owe it to anyone to share my life, especially if they might treat me differently."

But the Air Force had more changes in mind - they knew acceptance was important, not just policy. After being together with her spouse for a year, something happened that Braxton never saw coming. For the first time in history, the Air Force celebrated LGBT Month this June. It was what Braxton had been waiting for.

"Ever since my grandmother turned me away in high school, I thought I couldn't be myself. I learned how perception is everything, and a lot of people who could impact my career could perceive my sexuality as a detriment to the Air Force," said Braxton. "Now, I saw a different Air Force that was willing to change their perspective.

"There is someone who I know, who I have always suspected wouldn't approve of who I really am," said Braxton. "She took time out of the middle of the work day last week, and I wondered why. Then I saw her at an LGBT event near the fitness center. I was wrong to judge her, and now I know this is finally the Air Force I really want to be a part of."