Command Sergeant Major shares her story at Fort Leonard Wood Pride Month
Soldiers and civilians gathered at the Fort Leonard Wood USO Monday to celebrate and recognize a group of people who were historically oppressed and outcasted by the military until just four years ago.
Fort Leonard Wood hosted its first-ever Pride Month observance on Monday to recognize the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transexual (LGBT) community and to celebrate the progress made in the last 45 years since the Stonewall riots in Manhattan, which marked the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement.
Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa Duncan, the guest speaker for the event, shared her experience of being a gay soldier during the era of “Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT,” a term used to describe a policy that restricted gay and lesbian personnel from disclosing their sexual orientation and preventing gays from serving in the military.
Duncan enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1990, when society and the Armed Forces considered lesbians and gays as mentally unstable. Duncan was married to a man for seven years at the beginning at her career. She struggled to come to terms with her sexual identity for many years. She was a soldier who believed in the Army and followed the rules. But as time passed, she became more convinced that what she wanted something the Army strongly opposed.
During her speech, Duncan used good humor to make light of what can be considered a controversial and polarizing subject. She said that ever since the Fort Leonard Wood Guidon printed a story announcing her Pride Month speech, she has received a lot of questions.
“I've been asked a lot of questions about my sexuality,” she told the sold-out crowd. “One of my favorites is: Do I have a gaydar? For those of you who don't know a Gaydar is a sensor that identifies whether or not personnel are gay.
“No, I do not have a gaydar. If I were a vehicle, you would have to roll my windows down manually,” she joked.
Duncan said she was molested as a child and people ask her whether or not that made her gay.
“I can't answer to the fact if I was born gay,” she said. “Being molested as a child definitely affected my personal life, forcing me to focus more on my professional life. But the decision I made to be with a woman later in my life was more about social [aspects] and my Army experience. “
Duncan said DADT policies forced her to be secretive about her sexual orientation once she realized she was a lesbian. She met other lesbians online, including her wife, Maria Teresa Abeleda.
Duncan said Abeleda followed her to Fort Riley, Kansas, where she served as a Command Sergeant Major.
“Our friends and family knew, they didn't ask, and we didn't tell,” Duncan said.
She said after DADT was revoked in 2010, it was still hard for them to come out as a couple.
“We found ourselves in two predicaments,” she said. “Just because the Army accepted it, didn't mean it was accepted in the hearts and minds of soldiers and their families. And we had been telling the same story for so long, we're we supposed to just say we were kidding?”
Things changed for the couple in 2013 when the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed in June, giving same-sex military members the right to legally marry their partners.
The couple married in November 2013, but Duncan said it still took a while to introduce Abeleda as her wife.
“How do you express something that has been looked upon so negatively for so long?” Duncan said.
Duncan said after arriving at Fort Leonard Wood, she has grown used to being an openly gay soldier who proudly introduces the love of her life as her wife.
Duncan said she hesitated at first when asked to be a guest speaker at the first ever-LGBT event on Fort Leonard Wood.
“It was the women before me who laid the path for the future of women in the Army,” she said. “I realize now it is my turn to lay the path for those who do not feel accepted and who are in fear of being themselves. The only thing stronger than fear is hope and with hope, comes strength.”
Duncan said her goal for the observance was not to ask for special treatment as a gay military member, but for others to look at one another with a more open mind.
“I am asking for us as human beings to remove our personal, social, and intuitional barriers and judge one another based on character, competence, and commitment and to treat every person with respect, even when they are not like you,” she said.