What LGBT Pride Month means to three Vance Airmen

  • Published
  • By Joe B. Wiles
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – Team Vance recognized Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month this year with a rainbow cake cutting, a trivia/poetry night at the base club and a traveling “coming out” door.

To help Team Vance understand the importance of Pride Month, three members of the base LGBT community chose to share their thoughts, and glimpses into their lives, with their fellow Airmen.

For Staff Sgt. Robyn Castleberry, Pride Month recognition is important because she is a lesbian who has fought to be comfortable with who she is, both in life and in the Air Force.

For Airman 1st Class Carley Richardson, Pride Month is just another month. She hasn’t had to struggle with being a lesbian. “But I know it is hard for a lot of others, and they need our support.”

For Senior Airman Ebony Littlefield, Pride Month means a celebration of life. “My birth mother is a lesbian. Pride Month has been a regular holiday for me since I was a little kid growing up in New York City.”

At Vance, colorful LGBT messages were posted to the base marquees throughout June. For many who saw those messages, it was just another celebration recognizing another group they don’t belong to.

But military leadership seems to understand that the unique needs of some of its members are important to the success of the entire fighting force, and is currently paying attention to the needs of its LGBT members.

The Department of Defense celebrated its first LGBT Pride Month in 2012, one year after the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law. DADT barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

In June 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter added sexual orientation to the military’s equal opportunity policy to protect gay and lesbian employees and service members from discrimination and harassment.

In March 2016, the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmed the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service when they approved the nomination of Eric Fanning as Secretary of the Army.

And on June 30, Carter announced that effective immediately, transgender people can serve openly in the U.S. military.

The impact of these changes, over a relatively short period of time, is hard to gauge for the military as a whole. But for Richardson, Littlefield and Castleberry, the changes are most welcome.

“I like seeing people being who they are and not being scared about it,” Richardson said.

Castleberry believes it is important for Airmen still struggling with acknowledging they are gay or lesbian to know they have a family, a community in the Air Force.

Littlefield welcomes the changes because people shouldn’t have to hide who they are for the sake of progressing in their Air Force career.

For Littlefield, who is heterosexual and married with three children, involvement with the LGBT community has always been in a support role. She still laughs when she points out that “gay parents don’t manufacture gay kids.”

Her awareness that her mother was a lesbian was a gradual thing. “My parents were divorced. My father was active in my life and very accepting of my mother. They co-raised me and my two brothers.”

Littlefield’s cousins had a habit of pointing out that her mother wasn’t normal. She was hassled by classmates for the same reason. But it was something other than her mother being a lesbian that bothered her.

“I struggled in junior high because my friends had moms and dads that lived together in the same house,” said Littlefield.

“It was very different when you had two moms, a dad, and his girlfriend show up for parent-teacher conferences,” she said.

Having two moms in the house wasn’t confusing in the beginning, she said. “But when people start making you aware of it, it seems a little weird,” said Littlefield. “Mom was always open and answered my questions.”

Castleberry, who was raised in Arizona, knew she was different, but she didn’t know how or why.

“I grew up in a family of six women,” she said. Her father died when she was very young. She lived with her mother, grandmother, two aunts and a cousin.

“I didn’t know what a lesbian was and we didn’t talk about it,” she said.

Castleberry became aware she was a lesbian in middle school. “All the boys were asking the girls to a dance. I wanted my best friend, a girl with long blonde hair, to ask me,” she said. “Unfortunately, she didn’t.”

It wasn’t until she was 19 and had joined the Air Force that Castleberry came out to her family.

“I went home on leave and my mother picked me up at the airport,” she said. “We were driving back to the house, it was dark, and I blurted out, ‘Mom, I can’t hold it in anymore. I’m a lesbian.’

“She was very calm, and said, ‘Oh, that’s OK. I think we had a feeling already.’ It was so easy, so comfortable,” said Castleberry.

My mother was remarried to a wonderful man that I consider my father,” she said. “His reaction was, ‘I’m proud of you for coming into your own and finding yourself, finally.’”

While most welcome, her family’s reaction to the announcement was a surprise. “I thought there would be a little disappointment or sadness,” Castleberry said. “But if there was, they didn’t show it to me.”

For Richardson, who grew up in Louisiana, being gay holds little drama. “If you like me, awesome. If you don’t like me, I don’t really care,” she said. “I’m going to do my job and not lose sleep over what you think.”

She first discovered her orientation in sixth grade. “I wanted to play football and was noticing the cute girls,” said Richardson.

And she played football very well. “The coach asked my mom and dad to let me play on his football team as quarterback. But they said no.”

During freshman year in high school, Richardson came out to her parents. “They didn’t react very well. They were in the middle of a divorce, and thought they had something to do with me being gay,” she said.

But by her senior year, it all settled down with her parents. “They realized nothing was going to change. I was me regardless of my orientation,” Richardson said.

She enrolled at McNeese State University in Louisiana to study physical therapy. When she discovered the college lifestyle wasn’t for her, she switched over to emergency medical technician training.

But shortly after enrolling, she decided to join the Air Force. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had been repealed by then, so her sexual orientation didn’t come up at the recruiting station.

“It doesn’t bother me if people know and it doesn’t bother me if they don’t know,” said Richardson.

She doesn’t wear her sexual orientation on her sleeve. It is just who she is. And her family is comfortable enough with it that her mother and grandmother recently spent the weekend with Richardson and her wife, Tesia.

She met Tesia on Instagram. “I saw her picture, liked it, went to her page and started chatting.” Tesia came for a three-week visit, stayed for six, then went home to get her stuff and moved back for good, said Richardson.

They were married last July here in Oklahoma. “Our first wedding anniversary will be spent with me working the Open House,” she said. A proper celebration is scheduled later this summer when both of their work schedules permit.

Last year’s LGBT Pride Month was a low key recognition. As chairman of the Pride Month committee this year, Castleberry wanted “a more noisy celebration, because it is a diverse community that deserves attention.”

“There will also be a struggle, a stigma, because being lesbian, gay or transgender is not the norm,” said Castleberry. “It is not an everyday thing. It is something that many people go their whole life without seeing in their family or among their friends.”

Richardson didn’t have a struggle coming out as a lesbian. But she understands the challenge it can be for others and their need for support. “So I’m always going to be there for them.”

Littlefield believes the Air Force attitude about its LGBT Airmen is going in the right direction. “You can choose behaviors but you can’t change who you are or who you are attracted to,” she said.