For years, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nykita Stoudemire questioned her identity. Her family knew. Still, it wasn't until age 19 when she admitted the truth aloud. Her friends knew. Still, it wasn't widely-accepted at the time.
Nykita is a lesbian, but it still took her years to admit this truth to herself.
Although surrounded by those who cared for her, what society found permissible scared her into hiding that aspect of her life -- But not forever.
Raised in a military family, she followed in her father's footsteps and joined the Air Force at the age of 17. It was a confusing period in her life, she said.
During the beginning of her active-duty enlistment, she was subject to the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. For nearly two decades, service members, including Nykita, were not permitted to reveal their sexual orientation if it was anything but heterosexual. The effects of this policy would affect her five-year career and ultimately lead to her decision to end her active-duty commitment and start on a new path.
However, before her career diverged, the period of time she endured hiding who she is wasn't influenced by societal norms alone -- it was also her fear of being kicked out of her service commitment.
It's been seven years now since its repeal, and Nykita said it's been seven years now that she can actually breathe without fear of reprisal.
"Times have changed in a literal sense and so have policies, but neither of the two will change the mind of someone who truly disagrees or hates the LGBTQ community," remarked Nykita. "The change of harsh feeling towards the LGBTQ community begins with education and understanding.
"The LGBTQ community has an original stigma as being deviant and stemming from a mental disorder within the science community," she added. "Understanding begins with realizing members of the LGBTQ community are human, and respect in that manner is the biggest step one can take."
Over the past decade, the LGBTQ community has seen many milestones for equality come to pass, but the battle isn't over.
"They [Americans who led the fight for LGBTQ rights] understood a truth that lies at the heart of this nation: When all Americans are treated equal, we're all more free," said former President Barack Obama during the 2016 LGBTQ Pride Reception. "And that's what should give us hope.
"Despite our differences and our divisions, and the many complicated issues that we grapple with, real change is possible," he added. "Minds open. Hearts change. America shifts. And if the past few years have taught us anything, it's that people who love their country can change it."
During Nykita's career, a mentor once told her, "You're going to stay ashamed because you're not comfortable in your own skin." These words awoke something in Nykita, and she no longer wanted to hide.
"Imagine living your life in a full mask, trapped in a box, inside a dark room forever," said Nykita. "The most valuable person to you is you. If you are unable to interact with yourself and live the way you need to, you will eventually perish as a person either mentally or physical.
"It really does not matter if a person chooses to be 'out' or not, it essentially rests on if the person can accept who they are, for themselves," she added. "Unfortunately, society has made it a point in creating a bridge between someone being able to accept themselves, based off what is considered 'the norm.' It is very important to live your life without shame or embarrassment of who you are and if there is any doubt, remember those who couldn't and are no longer with us. Too many members of the community have committed suicide for this very reason."
During her time in Kuwait in 2016, Nykita decided to connect with Marissa, who she described as the most beautiful girl. The pair initially met through Instagram and began speaking constantly, despite the extreme time difference, and learned they had a lot in common.
After she returned, Nykita traveled to Marissa's hometown in Arkansas where she described their initial meeting as awkward and bashful, but there was a spark there which Nykita was hopeful about. The pair decided to rendezvous in Colorado Springs where they officially became a couple following a date at a smoothie place.
After being together for a month, Nykita knew Marissa was the one she didn't want to live without.
"She's something special," remarked Nykita.
She bought a ring and made a plan: She was going to take Marissa to Manitou Springs, and she was going to propose -- Marissa immediately said, "Yes."
Their time together in Colorado Springs was coming to an end though. Nykita had been accepted for a job in Orlando, Florida. With nothing more than a job lined up, Marissa packed up all her stuff and joined her fiancé on the 27-hour trip southeast. Their adventure was just beginning.
Fast-forward to today, Nykita serves as a reserve assignments technician with the Air Reserve Personnel Center. Marissa, an artist in many ways, is focusing her passion into a degree in art therapy. They have been happily married for over a year and are hopeful on their journey to start a family of their own. As avid travelers, the Stoudemires also plan to embark on a trip to Hawaii and Japan.
For those who wish to celebrate Pride Month, there are ample opportunities for events to attend in the local community.
"Pride month allows the LGBTQ community and its allies to celebrate, remember, and persevere as an undivided family," remarked Nykita. "Celebrate being free, being out, being open, and all the milestones that have been accomplished. Remember those who have paved the way for the community, those who have lost their lives, and those who are still fighting the fight. Persevere in all future endeavors."