June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base airmen are taking notice.
A group of airmen gathered at Heritage Hall June 14 for a pride month observance event, where they learned about issues facing the LGBT community and listened to the stories of several LGBT airmen.
The ceremony began with a slideshow going over the basic concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity. It included terminology to help get people acquainted with the difference between gender and biological sex, and the concept of gender as a non-binary spectrum on which people can be fluid.
Airman 1st Class Alicia Pruden presented the slideshow, and then welcomed Staff Sgt. Jasmine Bailey to the front of the room. Bailey described how, while growing up in Guam, she always knew she was gay.
"I've always been attracted to women," she said with a grin. "I had a crush on Brittany Spears when I was like seven and that's pretty much how I knew."
Growing up in a religious family in Guam, Bailey was worried that her loved ones would not accept her if she came out as gay. Being gay was not something people in her family talked about, she said, instead preferring not to acknowledge it.
As a result, she spent her early years trying to fit in with society's expectations of what a young girl should look and act like. Naturally a tomboy, she instead wore dresses and tried to will herself into liking boys. That led to depression, but eventually Bailey came to accept who she was, regardless of the consequences.
She soon came out to her family, and while things were rocky for a while, her mother eventually came around and accepted Bailey as well.
Having joined the Air Force while the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was in effect, Bailey said she went into mental health work to help people like her. She said she has seen people be bullied and even commit suicide due to their sexuality, and hopes that increased awareness will help vulnerable people get help.
Master Sgt. Jamilah Nailor-Thompson was up next. While she is straight, Nailor-Thompson said she is an ally of the LGBT community, and shared her experiences meeting gay airmen during her early training and deployment.
She said that while "don't ask, don't tell" meant the airmen couldn't discuss their sexualities, they could often tell who among them was gay. It never made a difference.
"It didn't matter if you were gay," she said. "We were a team, and we worked together to get through basic."
Airman 1st Class Tiffany Villalva joined the Air Force after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." She shared with the audience a story about Blake Brockington, a close high school friend who became the first transgender homecoming king in North Carolina's history.
She had to force back tears as she recounted the day Brockington took his own life in 2015.
"I woke up to see all these people on twitter saying #ripblake," she said. "I just kept asking people, you're not talking about my Blake, right?"
Villalva, whose wife is in the army, said the incident made her appreciate even more the importance of providing support and understanding to LGBT people.
Pruden was the last to speak. She said that, while her family had been accepting of her, she has had some difficulties with people accepting how she looks. Pruden has short cropped hair, and she said people often refer to her as "sir" and have called her derogatory terms like "little boy."
No matter what, Pruden said she is proud of who she is.
"Initially I was a very shy person, and I feel like I didn't come out of being a shy person until I came out as gay," she said. "I didn't care about what anyone thought of me. I feel like being gay is what I'm supposed to be."