Addressing an audience of approximately 150 employees across NAVAIR, Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith said, “Seeing you here today is a demonstration that at NAVAIR, we value all our service members, all our employees. You have signaled to the workforce that inclusion matters.” Smith spoke as part of NAVAIR’s first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month event June 2. (U.S. Navy photo)

Patuxent River, MD — Hers was a love story she longed to tell, but Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith was shunned into silence.

Living for decades in secret, Smith said she learned to divide her life and hide her gay lifestyle from her Army co-workers as she continued to rise up the ranks under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that barred gays from serving openly in the U.S. military.

But then, in 2004, she met her future wife, Tracey Hepner.

“It’s pretty easy to lead a compartmentalized life until you fall in love,” she said. “The most important thing in my life, I couldn’t share. It became too hard to serve.”

Smith, the first openly gay U.S. general and now deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Army Reserve, spoke to approximately 150 NAVAIR employees at the first NAVAIR Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month event June 2, where her story moved some to tears.

After the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, Smith said she has had to “relearn 25 years of being compartmentalized and the internalized homophobia.”

She began her military career under the ROTC program at the University of Oregon in 1982 where, ironically, she was asked to write a letter to the university defending the military’s ban on gays. When, in 1993, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy became law, Smith said she saw it as a victory, because gays could serve in the military, even if not openly.

“I celebrated my own self-marginalization in the form of this new policy,” she admitted.

In 2012, she was promoted to brigadier general, where Hepner pinned the star on her shoulder and effectively “outed” Smith as a lesbian.

“My life has gone full circle from when I wrote that letter in ROTC,” she said. “Tracey and I live the same ordinary, everyday life as any military family. I hold nothing ill in my heart from my experience.”

Smith and NAVAIR senior leaders acknowledged an LGBT pride celebration on a military installation is fairly new but that its purpose is to uphold human rights.

“Pride is not about anyone’s personal life; it’s a celebration of authenticity,” Smith said. “We celebrate pride because we value being a meritocracy, because we want to be an organization that attracts and retains the best talent, because we value our differences. That’s where some of our best ideas comes from. We celebrate pride because no one has the right to tell others who they should be or who they should not be.”

At NAVAIR, LGBT Pride Month helps promote cross-cultural harmony, said Gregory Yellman, deputy assistant commander for Corporate Operations and Total Force. “NAVAIR is committed to removing as many barriers as possible,” he said. “Diversity and inclusion are readiness imperatives to enable us to address the complex challenges in the global environment we live in today.”

The speakers thanked employees for attending the event and for making what they called a visible leadership statement.

Stephen Cricchi, assistant commander for Corporate Operations and Total Force, referred to a memorandum from Juan M. Garcia, assistant secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs), which states, “Leadership at all levels of the organization, by both military and civilians, is essential to eliminating discrimination and encouraging the acceptance of differences … We acknowledge the Department of the Navy LGBT community as a vital force in our work and integral part of our success.”

LGBT Pride Month is observed each June. Clarence Johnson, director of the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, wrote in a memorandum, “Throughout the month of June, let’s redirect ourselves to equity, dignity and respect for all and celebrate the diversity of the Department of Defense workforce.” For more information about LGBT Pride Month, read the 2015 presidential proclamation.