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News | June 14, 2023

BJACH, DENTAC Soldiers, employees, beneficiaries talk Pride Month

By Jean Graves, Medical Readiness Command, West

Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital Soldiers, veterans and staff discussed historic and current challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community, serving openly and what it means to celebrate Pride month at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Pride Month is not a new phenomenon, in fact, the first Pride march was held in New York City on June 28, 1970, on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. According to the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/lgbt-pride-month/about/ the Stonewall uprising was a series of events between police and LGBTQ+ protesters that stretched over six days. These events fundamentally changed the nature of LGBTQ+ activism in the United States.

Tammy Tate, deputy chief of the logistics and materiel branch at BJACH, served on active duty when gay service members were banned out right from military service and during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era.

Tate served as a unit supply specialist and a recruiter during her military career and retired in 2008, two years before the repeal of DADT in 2010.

“I think I always knew I was gay, but I never acted on it,” she said. “I did what was expected, I got married and I had a child.”

Tate said she doesn’t regret her marriage because of her son, but she inevitably divorced for a variety of personal reasons including an internal revelation she was having about her own identity and sexuality.

“When I first enlisted, the recruiting form straight up asked if you have ever participated in homosexual activities,” she said. “If you answered yes, you were automatically disqualified.”

Tate said even during the DADT era, you could be administratively discharged if anyone found out a service member was gay.

“It was really hard, you just lived in the closet as the old saying goes,” she said. “You went to work, you didn’t ever say anything about your personal life, you just put your head down and did your job.”

Tate said she had to keep her personal life a secret which had negative impacts on her relationships.

“Talking to my friends at the time now, they say, ‘Tate we all knew,’ but I couldn’t come out then,” she said. “I grappled with a lot of things. I loved the Army, I wanted to be in the Army, I knew keeping a secret was against the Army Values, but that was a choice I made.”

Tate said it was a choice she had to make between a career she loved and who she was as a person.

Anna Bickerstaff, practice manager at the Chesser Dental Clinic, served on active duty as a dental technician.

“I served during the time when the don’t ask, don’t tell policy was in effect. Dating was difficult, we had to hide our relationships from the world,” she said. “We weren’t free to be who we are. We couldn’t openly express our love for one another with meaningful gestures or gifts and were habitually lying about our relationship statuses.”

Bickerstaff said it was common to assign the opposite gender and make up a name for our partners.

“Most of us lived in fear and had to make the choice every day to be honest or risk everything we worked so hard for,” she said. “It’s so beautiful to see same sex couples out in the open without fear of reprisal today. They don’t have to bear the weight of making the choice between love and livelihood.”

Sgt. Hannah Cowsert, orthopedic specialist at BJACH and noncommissioned officer in charge of surgical services, said it’s important to participate in Pride Month activities and share her story not only for herself but for the LGBTQ+ Soldiers who served before her and those who will follow.

“I always knew I was gay, but I grew up in a conservative community where it would not have been accepted,” she said. “I came out in a letter to my dad while I was in basic training. He was more accepting than I had expected. My family and my peers have been very accepting.”

Cowsert said her dad just wanted her to be happy.

“My aunt said she knew I was gay when I started playing softball in high school,” she joked.

Tate said she just recently came out officially a year ago at 57 years old.
“Something finally clicked in my head, and I met a beautiful woman, my wife Karen, who helped me finally come out,” she said.

Bickerstaff said she had her first crush on a girl in elementary school when she was seven years old but dated boys until she was in her early teens because it was the right thing to do.

“I dated my first girl when I was 16 years old and everything just fell into place and made sense,” she said. “My father was the first person I talked about my not-so-sudden revelation and epiphany. True to form as a supporting parent from the baby boomer era, he responded lovingly, accepting me for who I am. I went down the line telling my siblings. They all said the same thing in response, ‘we were waiting for you to tell us.’ My mother is the only one who really has an issue with it. I came out to her years later when I was twenty-one. Communication with her is still stressed, and I’m tolerated but not accepted. I know she’s proud of my accomplishments, but not of me. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to because I’d rather be honest, comfortable, and happy with myself instead of living my entire life to make someone else happy and comfortable.”

Cowsert said she feels confident serving openly at BJACH.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I moved here from the Washington D.C. metro area,” she said. “I feel safe on post and in bigger cities, and since I’ve been here, I haven’t had any issues.”

Cowsert said it’s a testament to the BJACH and installation leadership.

“When I found out the garrison commander was an openly gay man, I knew it was ok for me to be open too,” she said.

Cowsert said Pride Month is a good opportunity to have conversations and educate others about the LGBTQ+ community.

“This isn’t a lifestyle choice,” she said. “I spent too many years hiding; I want to be true to myself and hope people will learn to accept it.”

Tate said she’s happy for the current generation of Soldiers who can serve openly.

“I wish we could have had that when I was on active duty,” she said. “We couldn’t grow relationships, embrace each other in public or have our significant others there to welcome us home from a deployment. I’m sad we couldn’t serve openly.”

Tate said maintaining relationships during DADT was difficult.

“I couldn’t be a full partner,” she said.

Tate said she’s not a flag flyer, but she is here to share her story to help others.

“To me, Pride Month is all about education,” she said. “It helps us old timers and the next generation know and understand that it’s ok to be open about your sexuality. The current generation right now is so fluent and it’s because of these conversations.”

Olivia Chapman, daughter of Maj. Micah Chapman, Task Force Three, Operations group, Joint Readiness Training Center, is a high school sophomore.

“When I was 11 years old, this girl liked me and we had never talked about same sex relationships in my house,” she said. “Both my older brothers are straight, so it wasn’t a conversation that ever came up. Before that I never really had a crush on anyone, I was just living my own vibe in my own lane.”

Chapman said she really became aware of her attraction to other females when she moved to Louisiana.

“When I had my first serious relationship with a girl and told my mom I was gay, she said she already knew,” she admitted. “I was 13 years old when I came out, so I was nervous to tell my parents because I know of others whose families weren’t accepting, which was scary.”

Chapman said she’s not totally on board with the idea of Pride Month activities.

“Being gay isn’t a personality trait,” she said. “Making it a month, just kind of reminds people that you are different. But being gay is just who I am. We should celebrate who we are every day, not just once a year.”

Chapman said it’s easier for her generation to be open about who they are.

“I think the biggest challenge is educating our parents and the older generations” she said. “They grew up in a different time when homosexuality wasn’t excepted.”

Chapman attributes being a military child to making things easier for her because military Families are already diverse.

Bickerstaff said pride is simply being proud of who you are as a person.

“It’s walking in your own truth and light without being ashamed of it,” she said. “Pride Month is a celebration of individuality and finding a family, home, and community where you’re accepted, understood, and loved. We welcome everyone who wants to celebrate. You don’t have to identify as queer to be an ally. Everyone who wants to be at our table is welcome to join. Pride Month is a time to bring awareness to our culture and lives.”

Cowsert said having conversations during Pride Month and any time are important.

“We are here, we aren’t going away, so education and understanding will make things better for everyone” she said. “As someone who can serve openly in the Army, I owe it to the veterans who served under don’t ask don’t tell, to be out and share my story for them and the Soldiers who will join after me.”

Cowsert said being open and out allows her to be true to herself and help others.

“I will answer any questions, nothing really offends me anymore,” she said. “Most people ask questions in good faith because they want to understand and learn. You can learn more by talking to a person than by Googling it.”

Bickerstaff said representation matters.

“We just want equality. There are so many different reasons to become more educated and to become an ally to those who identify as members of this community,” she said. “Understanding our differences can elevate one’s perception as opposed to accepting the ignorance and negative portrayal that we’ve been stigmatized by. That is why it’s important to celebrate pride.”

Chapman said living your own truth is important.

“Come out, people are more welcome to the idea of someone being gay nowadays,” she said. “Don’t stay in the closet. Don’t be ashamed of yourself. Be true to yourself, there are more people who will support you than who won’t. Gay or straight, my friends have my back.”

Chapman attributes her ability to be openly gay to those who came before her.

“Thank you,” she said. “Having the guts to stand up to ignorance, hatred and bigotry is why I can be out and live as an openly gay woman today.”

Tate said the key to happiness is honesty.

“I’ve never been happier,” she said. “It’s amazing. I lived in the closet for more than forty years. I wanted to be the best partner I could be to my wife, Karen. The only way I could do that was to be honest. Her strengths are my weakness and we have helped each other come out and live our authentic selves together.”
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