LGBTQ and Indigenous Focus Groups Hope to Influence Air Force Policy

Maj. Tyler McBride and Justin Lennon hold an LGBTQ+ Pride flag at Luke Air Force Base.
Maj. Tyler McBride, 62nd Fighter Squadron F-35A Lightning II instructor pilot, and Capt. Justin Lennon, 56th Training Squadron F-35 instructor pilot, hold an LGBTQ+ Pride flag after a Pride Month flyby June 26, 2020, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. McBride and Lennon performed the flyby over Luke AFB to celebrate and highlight the LGBTQ+ community. (Leala Marquez/U.S. Air Force)

The leaders of two Air Force and Space Force groups -- one focused on issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, or LGBTQ, troops; the other on indigenous service members -- want to see improvements begin at the top, they say.

The push for change shouldn't have to start at the lower echelons, according to Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, head of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning Initiative Team, or LIT; and Col. Terrence Adams, head of the Indigenous Nations Equality Tea, or INET.

"If we want this to succeed, it requires that leadership ... first and foremost be part of the process," said Lauderback, the director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the U.S. Space Force, during a roundtable interview Wednesday.

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Last month, the service announced that LIT and INET had formed earlier this year to better analyze issues impacting diversity, career limitations and retention of these service members. The groups hope airmen will come forward to describe barriers they've encountered in the service.

Lauderback, who has been openly gay since the repeal of the Dont Ask, Don't Tell policy, said she worries about young service members having doubts about their gender identity.

"We need to be able to get support through our providers, through our medical professionals within the service, in order to work that," she said.

A first step, she said, could be to encourage medical staff members to commend airmen for seeking care to protect themselves against HIV exposure. Airmen must fill out request forms to use pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment medication -- something that was once prohibited for pilots and aircrew. That policy was amended in 2018.

One simple improvement would be to change the language on the forms, which categorizes these airmen as "high risk," Lauderback said. "This airman is looking for help, he's doing the right thing, he's being responsible, and so we want to make him feel good about that, as opposed to making him feel that he's doing something wrong."

Another easy fix would be to look at family programs with LGBTQ personnel in mind. A two-dad family may dismiss a "mothers of preschoolers" program because it doesn't cater to their needs, she explained.

"Those are, again, awareness and education," Lauderback said.

INET is working to define the challenges indigenous airmen see in the ranks, Adams said. He is also the deputy director of strategy, posture, assessments and concepts for the Air Force.

INET is partnering with organizations such as the Society of American Indian Government Employees and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to identify and try to remove those barriers, and to recruit and retain individuals who traditionally have not seen military service as a career option, he said.

"My goal ... is to begin to champion, to make those small voices [into] large voices as we begin our journey," said Adams, who is of Cherokee and Creek Indian descent.

The teams are applying lessons learned from other groups, such as the Women's Initiative Team, which has been around for almost a decade and has been instrumental in encouraging change for outdated or restrictive policies.

There is room for collaboration, the leaders added.

Lauderback said she recently came across a transgender service member who reported a personal issue to the women's team, but the issue also applied to the LGBTQ team. "So that cross talk? That's happening," she said.

"If nothing else, we've got a good community together that can offer support to folks that are still having challenges. I think at the grassroots level, those airmen and Guardians [are] always going to participate as long as we offer the venue for it," Lauderback said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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