Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, Army Deputy G-1, addresses the audience during the annual LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Pride Month observance June 18 at the Commons. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
Fort Drum community celebrates diversity, equality during LGBT Pride Month observance
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 19, 2019) – Fort Drum community members welcomed Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, Army Deputy G-1, as guest speaker for the annual LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Pride Month observance June 18 at the Commons.
Before Smith delivered her remarks, attendees watched a video that explained how LGBT Pride Month commemorates the Stonewall riots in Manhattan, New York – an event that launched the modern gay rights movement in America. The uprising was in response to police harassment, violence and persecution toward members of the gay community, and it marked a pivotal moment in history where they would no longer quietly endure prejudice based on their sexual or gender orientation.
Smith said that she appreciated seeing that with a full ballroom of attendees, because many people don’t realize why June was designated as Pride Month. She said that what happened one year after the uprising – the first organized gay pride parade – was equally significant.
“From that, it sparked a movement, in that June became the time when the LGBT community remembered Stonewall and gathered for pride,” she said. “The whole spirit of pride is that nobody has the right to tell me who I can be. But more important, nobody has the right to tell me who I cannot be.”
Smith said that the Stonewall riots proved that a community can push back against a society that told them to conform to social norms and hide their authentic selves.
“That’s the point of pride: being who you are,” she said. “It goes back to being authentic.”
Smith said that leaders have the responsibility to set the tone that allows people in the workforce to be authentic, and it goes beyond LGBT orientation. She said that people in mixed-race families or those with special needs may also feel they have to mask their true selves and speak and act cautiously around others.
“If you have an organization where people can’t be authentic, you’re building hesitation in them,” she said. “You’re causing them to stop and look both ways and not be themselves. We have to create a culture and climate in our organizations where people don’t hesitate.”
Smith said that she thinks about the Army values as creating a “sameness” in the organization, whereas workforce diversity showcases “differences.”
“Our differences aren’t the difference between, ‘You’re black, I’m white,’ – that’s not diversity, that’s demographics,” she said. “Diversity is truly knowing in your brain that your black experience is different than my white experience, that your experience as a man is different than my experience as a woman, that my experience as a lesbian is different than your experience as a straight person.”
She said that understanding the difference in experiences gets to the power of diversity and grows stronger communities and organizations. Smith said that the Department of Defense demonstrated its ability to embrace diversity after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010.
Smith related an experience she had in Airborne School with a weak exit from the plane. She managed to correct her error by following what the jumpmaster told her: “Trust your equipment.”
Smith said that people have their own equipment that they can rely on to get them through life’s challenges, whether it be a strong work ethic, compassion, a sense of humor or poise under pressure. Learning to trust her own equipment got her through some difficult times while wearing the uniform.
The same year she attended Airborne School, the Department of Defense issued a directive prohibiting the military from barring applicants from service based on sexual orientation. In 1993, service members could not openly express being gay under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
“What that was like is that I had perfected compartmentalizing my personal life,” she said. “I was good at it. For 25 years I lived in constant fear of somebody discovering who I was. I learned to compartmentalize my world in a way where I had a life with all of you – who were my co-workers, who I adored and who I liked to spend time with and work hard with – and I had a life with another set of friends who were my off-the-grid friends.”
With her off-the-grid friends, Smith said she could feel authentic, but compartmentalization trained her to be constantly hesitant.
“You couldn’t take any chance, you couldn’t answer questions honestly,” she said. “‘What did you do this weekend’ should be an easy question to answer, but when you have to hide your life, you just deflect and don’t answer the question.”
Smith said that she loves serving in the Army, which is why she was able to hesitate, deflect and hide her authentic self for 25 years. When she met her future wife, Tracey, in 2004, she learned to share her compartmentalized life.
“I have to tell you, it was hard,” Smith said. “When you finally meet the person you love the most, it’s hard to keep that a secret. But we had to do that.”
Sometimes, Smith said they had to pretend not to know each other when they were spotted together in public. They created back-up plans on where to meet afterward.
“Just imagine, those of you with spouses, having to pretend like you don’t know your spouse,” she said. “And we did that because we love to serve, and at the time we were going through that, we knew that was the price to pay for service.”
When the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act” became law in December 2010, Smith was deployed in Afghanistan.
“I didn’t do anything different, I didn’t act different, but I had the weight of the world off my shoulders,” she said. “When I got back from Afghanistan, Tracey and I were able to plan for our wedding.”
They married in March 2012 at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., in what she described as a coming-out ceremony. Just two months later, Smith was notified that she was selected for promotion to brigadier general.
“So, simply by timing, I knew that there was the potential that I would be the first out general flag officer in the entire military,” she said. “I had to decide what I was going to do.”
Smith said that meant coming to terms with the fact that having Tracey participate in the promotion ceremony would create headline news. She wanted to inform the general officer who would conduct the ceremony about it, and Smith decided to do so at his retirement ceremony.
“Everybody in the organization, everybody from command, is at this retirement ceremony,” she said. “And so I found myself introducing Tracey as my wife over and over and over again, for the first time. And I have to tell you, it was hard.”
Her promotion ceremony was conducted at Arlington National Cemetery in August 2012. Smith said that Tracey pinned the star on her uniform, and that it was a humbling and beautiful ceremony. That night, Smith said that Tracey noted that she was not mentioned in her promotion remarks.
“Not one time did I say thank you to the person who has been most important to my life,” she said. “Not once did I even mention the person who meant the most to me in the world and has been so supportive of me since 2004.”
Smith said that she mentioned this to emphasize how programmed in she was to her old, compartmentalized ways of living.
“I was so practiced in compartmentalization that I did not even notice that I had not included my own wife in my promotion remarks to brigadier general,” she said. “That’s what it feels like, that’s what it means to compartmentalize.”
Smith said that is the reason why people must take the time to understand the differences in people and their experiences. Only then can organizations, units and society remove what prevents people from being their authentic selves and stop causing them to hesitate.
“So, in my experience I can leave you with one final thought and it can simply be: Jumpers, trust your equipment,” she said. “It will not fail you.”
The LGBT Pride Month observance is not one of the mandatory events required for Army installations to recognize annually. For the past four years, the 10th Mountain Division (LI) has marked this event equal to all special observances such as Women’s History Month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month or Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Here at the 10th Mountain Division (LI), we believe in equality and honoring all members of our formation,” said 1st Lt. John Moran, battalion personnel officer, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade. “So, we stand with our brothers- and sisters-in-arms and will always be on belay for them.”