Stronger together: Building a better Coast Guard through diversity and inclusion

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell

Petty Officer Connie Terrell and her family during her advancement ceremony, August 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Petty Officer Connie Terrell and her family during her advancement ceremony, August 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

For many people, June means summer break, barbecues, warmer weather and longer days. All are reasons to celebrate, of course. For others, there’s another reason to celebrate … and to reflect.

It was in late June nearly 50 years ago that a revolution began to unfold. What began with the Stonewall riots in the early morning of June 28, 1969, on the streets of Greenwich, New York, would become the fuel the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community needed to gain equal rights in America. Decades later, the LGBT community still comes together every June to celebrate the trials and triumphs of those who paved the way and of those who continue to trail blaze today.

I’ve served in the Coast Guard since the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy was in effect. Like many others, I served in silence.

Petty Officer Connie Terrell with her wife, Sarah, their two older children and her father during her wedding Feburary 15, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Terrell family.

Petty Officer Connie Terrell with her wife, Sarah, their two older children and her father during her wedding, Feb. 15, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Terrell family.

The policy didn’t mean you couldn’t serve in the military; it just meant you couldn’t be open about who you were. If revealed you were in a relationship with someone of the same sex, you could be discharged. If there was even so much as a rumor you said you were in a same-sex relationship, you could be investigated.

I’ll never forget the day I came home, frantic and panicked that I may be investigated. Back then, that could mean losing the job I loved so much. The look on my then-partner’s face, the fear in her eyes as I ripped the memories of our life together off the walls of our home and hid them away in a box, is still very fresh in my mind more than a decade later. Thankfully, my career was spared.

The fear progressed to the point that I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone in my chain of command anything. So when a Coast Guard health care worker sexually harassed me, I didn’t even feel I could go to my command to disclose what happened. The policy had detrimental effects across the Coast Guard and other military branches.

Once DADT was repealed in September 2011, it was a weight off my shoulders. I felt like I could finally breathe. I no longer had to dodge questions about who I was dating or even what my weekend plans were. I no longer feared I’d lose my job.

Although some people still didn’t agree with my lifestyle, I met some of the most amazing, supportive Coast Guardsmen; people who were more concerned with the content of my character than the person I loved. I cannot even put into words what their support has meant to me.

The repeal of DADT was a huge milestone for the LGBT community; however, there were still many hurdles to clear.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enacted in 1996, allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. I wondered what this had to do with my service in the Coast Guard. Well, it meant that unlike all my married peers in straight relationships, my marriage wouldn’t be recognized the same. Though we were now allowed to serve openly, DOMA limited the military’s ability to extend the same benefits to military personnel in same-sex marriages that peers in opposite-sex marriages received, especially when it came to health benefits.

Petty Officer Connie Terrell and her daughter participate in the celebration of the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, June 26, 2013. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer Connie Terrell.

Petty Officer Connie Terrell and her daughter participate in the celebration of the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, June 26, 2013. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer Connie Terrell.

DOMA was struck down on June 26, 2013, just eight months before my now-wife and I were to marry. I’ll never forget the sounds of joy in our home as the news came on our television. My partner would be recognized as my wife and receive the same benefits as any other military spouse!

Although my wife received federal protections and benefits, until June 2015, there were still laws allowing states to ban same-sex marriages. As a military family who moves around, that was a scary thought. She brought two children into my life and we were nervous we might move to one of those states. To ensure both my children and I were protected no matter where we moved, I legally adopted them in April 2015.

Recently, there was yet another triumph for the LGBT community. For decades, people who are transgender were banned from military service. Just last June both the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard ended their ban on transgender service members. There’s still work to be done, but the LGBT military community has more protections than ever and there is continuing work toward a better future.

Photo courtesy of the Terrell family.

Photo courtesy of the Terrell family.

The LGBT community has so many reasons to celebrate this month. So when you see the rainbow flags waving in the wind, remember those who paved the way toward equality because we are indeed stronger together.

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