VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Airmen at Vance Air Force Base were joined by community members Monday to celebrate the base's first LGBTQ Pride event.
Enid LGBT Coalition, Church Women United and individual community members joined with the base's equal opportunity office to create a supportive display and informational booth in the headquarters of the 71st Flying Training Wing. Organizers expect it to be an annual event.
Staff Sgt. Lesli Pape said Monday's Pride event was one of 11 observances throughout the year to promote acceptance of and equal opportunity for people from a variety of ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds.
"It's important for all of us to promote unity, as well as diversity, across the Air Force," Pape said.
1st Lt. Jessica Rowald organized the event, building on an informal Pride observance on the base last year.
"They had a little display last year, so this year we wanted to have a traveling display that we could show at other places around the base as well," Rowald said.
The centerpiece of the display is a door on which airmen and supporters can write their "coming out" story, or their support for the LGBTQ community.
The door will be auctioned off during the Enid Pride event in September to raise funds for awareness. Rowald said that kind of collaboration with the Enid LGBT Coalition and other community partners is essential, and welcome.
"This is the first time we've ever been able to work jointly with community groups, and we're very pleased to be able to have this display here at Vance," she said. "This is all a new area for the Air Force, so we were excited to undertake this here."
Lisa Herald, a board member with Enid LGBT Coalition, said the coalition also is excited to partner with airmen at Vance.
"I've known people who were in the LGBT community here at Vance, and wanted to join our organization, but were terrified they'd be discharged if someone found out," Herald said. "It's sad that for so long people were asked to serve, and to possibly die for their country, and they could be discharged just for existing -- just for being who they are."
She said Monday's event marked an important turn in relations between Vance and the Enid LGBTQ community.
"I think we're making progress," she said, "and I think it's wonderful."
Zach Blackburn, vice chair of the Enid LGBT Coalition, said the willingness of Vance to work with the LGBTQ community might motivate other community organizations to openly show their support.
"Seeing another group willing to join us is big for us," he said, "and hopefully if the military can do this, maybe that will lead to more of our community and our region being openly supportive of us."
Faith-based groups also were on hand Monday to show their support for the Pride event.
Church Women United, an ecumenical women's group, brought a display of peace ribbons to the event, tying the Pride event into social justice movements at which the ribbons have been displayed dating back to the early 1980s.
Church Women United president Lynne Bussell said the group felt it was important to attend the Pride event to show their support, and to advance the cause of peace and justice.
"People are people, and all people have a part in this world," Bussell said. "We just want to recognize that everyone can contribute and play their part in the world. It doesn't matter who you are ... everyone should be included, recognized, and validated."
The Rev. Matt Perkins, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Drummond, also came out to show his support.
"I just wanted to be here to be supportive, and to let people know there's a place where people of faith can come and be supportive of the LGBT community," Perkins said. "There isn't much that happens for the LGBT community in our area, and I'm just glad to see another event that is supportive."
Rowald said she hopes that sense of support will reach Vance's LGBTQ airmen
"Some of the comments we've heard from the airmen are that they feel a little isolated," Rowald said. "We want to increase visibility for LGBTQ issues in the Vance community and let people know they have a network and support group if they need it."
She's working on founding an LGBTQ Alliance on the base. She said support from the command staff has been strong, and the rank and file airmen also have voiced their support.
That support is worth noting, Rowald said, given that not too long ago an open display such as Monday's would have led to disciplinary charges.
"Just a few years ago, this would have been a career-killer," Rowald said.
Robert Hayes, chairman of the Enid LGBT Coalition, saw firsthand how being gay in the military could end during "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and earlier.
During his time in the Army, part of his job was to process disciplinary paperwork for soldiers who were discovered to be gay.
"When I was in the service, part of my job was to process their discharges," he said. "For me, being gay, that was very hard for me to do. But, the Army let it be known that if I objected, I would be next."
He said the stigma of the bad conduct discharge that usually resulted from being "outed" was significant, and lasting.
"It was equivalent to a federal court judge ruling that you were insane," he said. "It was a permanent scar on your life, and it was very, very hard to fight."
Hayes said Monday's event was a small step forward in healing all those years of discrimination against LGBTQ service members, but it was a welcome step.
"The outreach to the Vance community is something that's been needed for a very long time," Hayes said. "This is a step in the right direction."
Rowald said she's grateful to be a part of moving the Air Force, and the military in general, forward in accepting all service members.
"We're just very thankful and privileged to be able to put on a uniform every day and protect people who can't protect themselves," Rowald said. "It feels like we're taking a positive step in the Air Force to be accepting of the LGBT community -- of everyone who wears the uniform."