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The Rude Blue Yonder

by Heather Sarver
US Air Force Veteran

I joined the Air Force as a Russian Linguist. I was stationed in Monterey, California and had a terrific experience in California. I was in the closet and only came out to others who came out to me first. I really didn't feel any fear of being found out because I mistakenly thought the "Don't' Ask, Don't Tell" policy was there to protect me. I loved learning Russian and doing my job. Translating and disseminating intelligence information was a high pressure job, but I thrived. Because of my good job performance I was made supervisor of my section when I was stationed in San Antonio,  TX. This is where all the trouble began. I heard horrible anti-gay, racist, and sexist jokes all the time. Because I knew this was against the rules I wrote up all of my subordinates who were involved. I spoke to them about why these rules were in place. Things went well for a few weeks and then the jokes started up again. The guys had even more fun joking now because they knew when I wrote them up nothing would be done. I continued to follow the rules and submit my paperwork to no avail. I tried to find out why nothing was being done about my write ups. I spoke to everyone up my chain of command and everyone seemed to give me the run-around. Finally I spoke to a Chief who said, "No one is allowed to be gay in the military, so I don't know why you are writing anyone up."

 My next strategy to deal with the then hostile work environment was to appeal to my co-workers humanity. I said, "My brother is gay, and that is why those jokes are so offensive for me." (Which is true - my brother is also gay). That decision turned out to be a huge mistake. Every joke then involved my brother in some way, and they knew that I was highly offended so the jokes were non-stop. I felt that I was losing control as a supervisor because I didn't have the Air Force behind me. The rules were just paper and had no value without enforcement. I finally had enough and went to the highest person I could think of - my commander. I showed her all my paperwork. She looked it over and said "This is not any worse than anything female pilots have to go through." I realized I had no recourse after that. I decided to just suck it up and deal with it the best I could.

 One morning sitting in my car before I was about to go into work, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was taken to the hospital and they told me I had experiences an anxiety attack. They wouldn't prescribe medicine, just counseling. I couldn't tell the counselor everything I was going through because there is no doctor/patient confidentiality in the military. Work never got better. The jokes just escalated until our work productivity suffered. The anxiety attacks kept happening in more frequency. I felt trapped.

Finally, out of self-preservation, I went to the commander and I told her I was gay. I wrote letter explaining that I was coming out because of the hostile work environment, no one answering my write ups, refusing to let me transfer offices or bases, and because of the outright failure of leadership. She looked through my file and told me she wanted to give me 48 hours to think it over and change my mind because she didn't want to lose me. I said "I have definitely thought it over, and I will not change my mind." She said ok, then went on to explain what a long process the discharge would be and that because I was in military intelligence it would take longer. She said the earliest I would be discharged was 3 months but it would probably take longer. She said she would begin my discharge, but things could move slow. The first sergeant spoke with me later and said I wasn't allowed to tell anyone why I was being discharged.

The next day I was transferred to a new office. I became a language tutor. It was really great. I loved it there. The people were so good to work with, and I had told them why I was being discharged and no one had any problems with it. This was the way it should have been all along. Being able to be out at work and having a level of professionalism in the office. A few weeks later I learned the Inspector General was coming to our base the following week. I decided I would try and meet with him and explain what had happened. I didn't want anyone else to have to go through what I went through. I told a coworker that I was going to try to meet with the I.G. and I explained why it was important I speak with him. The very next day I was called into the commander's office and given my discharge paperwork. She said I had until Sunday to outprocess. I was a civilian.