By Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell – Despite the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) in 2011, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, total equality for the LGBT community is still a work in progress. One of the ways the Coast Guard is helping its LGBT members is by creating an open dialogue.
Petty Officer 1st Class Sasha Fairburn, a company commander at Training Center Cape May, thinks the topic is still taboo for many people.
“People say I don’t look ‘gay,’” said Fairburn. “But what does ‘gay’ look like?”
“Well, actually I look pretty ‘gay,’” Lt. Cmdr. Hillary Allegretti, the executive officer of Marine Safety Office Cleveland, said as the audience erupted with laughter.
This was the beginning of the first-ever dialogue of LGBT equality amongst shipmates in the open setting of a leadership conference.
Allegretti, Fairburn and Petty Officer 1st Class Audrey Russo, a liaison officer at Coast Guard flight school in Pensacola, Florida, participated in a panel focused on LGBT equality in the Coast Guard during the Women’s Leadership Symposium held at Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan in March 2016.
“I was nervous about how people would react, but I was determined that LGBT issues needed to be heard and a dialogue started to create unity in the Coast Guard,” said Lt. Cmdr. Julie Rodriguez, the organizer of the panel. “I wanted people to look past sexual orientation and see the person for who they are and their outstanding performance.”
All three panel members agreed that Coast Guard members who feel they can talk openly about LGBT issues and their lives can lead to a healthier workforce.
“It’s healthy to express things that are going on in your life and be yourself,” Allegretti said. “When your life depends on trust and you feel you have to hide things, it degrades trust. If a member feels like they can’t trust people they work with, it makes it difficult for them to discuss issues in their life.”
Fairburn, who served before the 2011 repeal of DADT, vividly remembers not being allowed to talk about being a lesbian.
Under DADT, military members who identified as gay or lesbian had to hide their sexual orientation or risk being discharged.
“You couldn’t fully be yourself,” Fairburn said. “I got really good at switching pronouns and names.”
Fairburn, who worked at Coast Guard Headquarters at the time, attended work events with her then-girlfriend, however had to pretend they were just roommates.
“The repeal was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
After the repeal, Fairburn was finally able to talk openly to her coworkers about the “friend” she had brought to the work events.
She said when she was finally able to introduce her girlfriend to her shipmates, it was great that they took it in stride.
“It was like nothing had changed when everything changed for me,” Fairburn said.
Russo said she feels everything within the Coast Guard is good now, but state laws remain that can cause difficulty for military members who move across state lines on a regular basis.
Russo, who recently had a baby with her wife, said some states require more steps to be considered a legal parent, even if the child is biologically your own.
“We not only had to pay for having the baby, but we would’ve had to pay for the adoption and a home study,” Russo said.
However, the state law changed before they welcomed their baby girl into the world this past February so they didn’t have the additional costs of having a home study performed to ensure they were both fit parents.
While some states require home studies for a parent to legally adopt a child they had with their same-sex spouse or partner, other states ban adoptions between same-sex parents completely. Although some states allow both parents to be on the birth certificate, it doesn’t fully protect families when they cross state lines.
Allegretti said it’s often difficult to determine what the state laws are when transferred to a new duty station.
“A lot of times there’s no precedent,” Allegretti said. “You have to put in a lot of effort to make sure you’re protected. Even though Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act have been repealed, there are still plenty of laws that allow discrimination.”
Allegretti and her wife, Megan, live in Ohio, where state law would allow their landlords to legally evict them from their home because they are lesbians. Employers are also allowed by state law to fire LGBT employees.
“Just because we have the right to marry, doesn’t mean we have equal rights,” Allegretti said.
Rodriguez hopes the event gave leaders and future leaders the courage and the tools to support LGBT members at their unit.
“I don’t want special treatment because I’m gay,” Fairburn said. “I just want to be treated like everyone else – how you would have before you knew I was gay. It doesn’t define who I am. It’s just one part of me.”