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Into the Sky Without Limits

USAF Academy Cadets
Lydia Hill and Brandon Reams

By Denny Meyer

There will come a day when gay associations at military academies and bases are as normal and routine a part of of the military life milieu as some would have us believe they already are.  With our freedom to serve in pride just over a year old, however, such groups and their founding leaders are pioneering the way forward and creating history with every seemingly routine thing that they do.  Simply serving our nation openly as gay men and women was unthinkable just a few years ago.  Those volunteering to serve today, do so for the same patriotic reasons that we always have.  Who we happened to be has always been less important that what we wanted to become.  Being black, or gay, or Hispanic, or female, or Jewish, for example, has always been secondary to volunteers who chose to be American patriots serving our nation.

When I left college to volunteer 45 years ago, a recruiter offered me the option of training to become an officer.  I declined, at the time, because I could not imagine a gay man being allowed to lead or even getting away with doing so secretly.  Over the course of a decade of proud service, I nevertheless grew into leadership and left as a Sergeant First Class.  And yet, I ended my successful military career at midpoint, out of fear that it could all come crashing down suddenly simply because someone might discover that I'm gay.

In December, I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing two out proud patriotic U.S. Air Force Academy Cadets, training to become tomorrow's leaders, who no longer have to have the slightest concern that who they happen to be could have any relevance to their becoming officers leading airmen in defense of our nation's freedom.

Lydia Hill and Brandon Reams are Cadets 3rd Class, sophomores, in the Air Force Academy's class of 2015, and are cofounding leaders of Spectrum, the official gay and lesbian on campus club.

Brandon Reams, aged 21, was perhaps inspired by his uncle who served as an enlisted man in the Air Force.  He grew up wanting to fly.  Coming from rural small town America, he saw the educational resources of the Air Force as a way to enable his goal of working in cyber development.  Despite knowing that he was gay since he was a teenager; he never thought that it would have any impact on his aspirations.  Despite being aware of homophobia and racism in high school, he never imagined letting any of that stand in his way forward.  He was born at the dawn of the Don't Ask Don't Tell era of official discrimination, and knew it would come to an end.  As the history of freedom's progress in our armed forces unfolded, he has been able to be more out at the academy that he had been at home.

Lydia Hill, aged 19, is from Boston.  Her military inspiration may have been her grandfather who served in Korea.  She had always wanted to serve.  Her background and experience in the sport of fencing, as well as her academic excellence, led to an Air Force Academy recruitment offer that opened the door to her future.  As was Brandon's experience, she found the Academy to be a place of military professionalism and acceptance where she was able to be free to realize her full potential both as an individual and as a future leader.

For both Brandon and Lydia, the military's transition to open service took place a few months after they had arrived at the Academy.  Hence, as freshmen cadets, they had no time to even think about what that meant for them.  And yet, she and Brandon found that a great weight had been lifted in that they no longer needed to lie about what the did on weekends and with whom.  They discovered that they had the security of being able to choose  to tell friends who they are.  Telling peers turned out to have its own rewards; their peers asked questions and were accepting.  The development of that kind of camaraderie is a huge part of what leadership training is all about.

What is it like to be open at the Academy?  They have equality stickers on their computers; their e mail tags say, "Co President of Spectrum."  And when fellow cadets talk about weekends, they now remember to recognize and take into account Lydia's and Brandon's identity and relationships, rather than assuming that everyone is straight.  Thus, they noted, simply being open about who they are at the Academy has made others more aware and accepting.  That kind of progress, for them, is what gives meaning to their pioneering risk taking.

When I asked them about their future expectations, as founders of the first lesbian and gay group at the Academy, Brandon was pragmatic.  First, he expects to graduate, be commissioned and become a 2nd Lieutenant.  As an openly gay officer, he wants to be able to "keep the ball rolling," to set an example.  He believes that the Air Force Academy is on the cutting edge of equal rights; and so he will be able to feel comfortable about his airmen knowing who he is.  (It should be no different than if he were Hispanic or Black). 

For Lydia, the main purpose of what they are doing is that Spectrum breaks down people's ideas of what or who a gay person is; it is educating their peers and future officers that they are no different from any other cadet and future leader.  They are making themselves available via Spectrum, she said, so that their fellow cadets will know the right thing to do when leading their airmen as officers; so that as leaders they will be able to empathize with those of their airmen who are gay.

While there is not currently any formal training component regarding "how to be an officer who happens to be gay," Brandon and Lydia are pioneering in providing "safe space training" which is open to all cadets.  They provide information on gay culture and lead open discussions.  The very existence of Spectrum at the Academy enables all cadets to understand, respect, and relate to their peers and the airmen they will lead.

Lydia and Brandon realize that not all gay cadets choose to be out.  They made the choice to do so, they said, both to enable themselves to be better leaders, and to set an example by being proud of who they are, without shame; thus creating an environment where others may feel safe in being out as well.  Individuals choose the time that is right for them to come out; when they are ready, Spectrum will be there for them, according to Brandon.  Lydia added that she and Brandon have chosen to be the first,  exemplifying that they can be out and proud carrying on without any problems from peers or command.  "We are here to stay," she said.

Most people would not choose to be a 'poster kid' as the first out gay cadet,  Brandon noted.  But, "we are just who we are.  To lead, you have to know yourself, and embrace who you are; if you are still struggling with that, it's much harder to lead others."

Spectrum was honored and thanked by Blue Alliance (the organization of LGBT Air Force Academy graduates), at its dinner earlier this year, for being the first out organization at the Academy and thus representing all those who came before and paving the way for those who will follow in the future.

 All this old gay sergeant can say is, OUTSTANDING!

  2013 Gay Military Signal