SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, NC – Long before the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was even enacted – much less, repealed – one Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Airman was a pioneer for change, paving the way for the LGBTQ+ Airmen who now serve.
Lt. Col. Barbara Wujciak, 4th Medical Group optometrist and 916th Aerospace Medicine Squadron reservist, was forced out of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981 when her roommates found letters to her then-girlfriend and turned her in.
“I lost my scholarship and my college plan all at once,” said Wujciak, a Rocky Mount, North Carolina, native who instead obtained a teaching degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the early 1980s, her job as a math teacher was also at stake because of her sexual orientation; so, she pivoted again and went to optometry school, opening her own practice in Eastern North Carolina in 1992.
“Around 2003, I found service academy gay and lesbian groups online,” Wujciak said.
Through the internet, she was able to connect with other gay service academy alumni who had been discriminated against. By then, the policy of DADT was firmly in place, technically allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual members to serve – but only if they stayed “in the closet.” So Wujciak and her associates banded together in the interest of change.
“We were rabble-rousing,” she said with a smile. “Hundreds of us were lobbying Congress, visiting Congressional offices and telling our stories.”
It took years of petitioning policy makers, but Wujciak finally began to see legislation leaning in the direction of permanent change and decided – in spite of the way she had previously been treated – to rejoin the military, this time as a U.S. Air Force reservist.
In December 2010, 28 years after being kicked out of the U.S. Naval Academy, Wujciak graduated from officer school. On the day she graduated, Senate voted to overturn DADT and finally allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to serve openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. DADT was officially repealed in September 2011, ending a 50-year ban and 17 years of secrecy and silence for lesbian, gay and bisexual members of the U.S. military.
“I was part of a movement that really did change history,” said Wujciak. “When young Airmen come in now and say ‘my wife’ or ‘my husband,’ [about an LGBTQ+ partner], it warms my heart to know they are free.”
Because of people like Wujciak who fought for others’ civil rights, couples like Lt. Col. Hattie McAviney, 4th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron commander, and her wife, Master Sgt. Kayleigh McAviney, 335th Fighter Generation Squadron first sergeant, are able to be married and receive all the benefits to which married service members are entitled. When the McAvineys’ partnership first began on the heels of the DADT repeal, they said the military culture had not yet shifted with the policy changes and people regularly assumed Lt. Col. McAviney was married to a man.
“I had to rehearse how to respond to people,” said Lt. Col. McAviney, whose blood family have not been accepting of her relationship. “But I was lucky; because of the timing of our story, my coming out, and our marriage, I had supportive Air Force family. Because of them, I am able to freely and confidently say I’m married to an enlisted woman.”
People didn’t have a malicious intent with their assumptions, according to Master Sgt. McAviney; however, it was a time when people were not yet caught up with the changes and didn’t realize how common it was to be gay in the military. Their same-sex relationship and the social and emotional perceptions that came with it were not the only challenges they faced together.
“My wife and I have been through some pretty times together, both personally and professionally,” said Master Sgt. McAviney, who is currently in Southwest Asia completing her seventh deployment. “Our tough situations range from responding together as the first medics on scene to an airplane crash while deployed, dealing with deaths of friends, family disownment for being gay, and we have never been together for longer than nine consecutive months throughout our entire relationship. Despite all these challenges that we have faced and continue to face, I wouldn’t choose anyone else to be with. She is my rock, my life partner, and without a doubt the better half.”
The plane crash they responded to together in 2013 was life changing for them both. They had flown into their deployed location together on that very plane the day before it went down, and the crew members who were killed were members of their unit.
“That kind of event makes you realize that life is short,” said Lt. Col. McAviney, who has deployed six times in her career. “You never know when it will end, so be your true self, love who you love, and be kind.”
It’s because of their struggles that these proud LGBTQ+ Airmen are passionate about fighting for the right thing and sharing their stories – so others feel empowered to be themselves, too.
“In my opinion, Pride Month is more than just recognizing acceptance for the LBGTQ+ community,” said Master Sgt. McAviney. “It gives the opportunity to remind everyone, regardless if someone is part of the LBGTQ+ community or not, that they should be proud of and have pride in who they are, no matter their differences. It’s a month to show love and acceptance for all.
Written by: Airman 1st Class Sabrina Fuller
4th Fighter Wing – SJAFB