International Women’s Day (IWD) is today, Sunday, March 8. It’s a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women — and a call-to-action for gender parity. IWD has been around for more than 100 years. Its early roots are in the U.S., but it’s now celebrated around the globe.
The 2020 theme, “Each for Equal,” encourages us to actively challenge stereotypes and bias, celebrate women’s achievements and improve issues women encounter. Because after all, an equal world is an enabled world. IWD embraces the idea of “collective individualism,” which inspired this year’s theme — that is, we are all parts of a whole and our actions, conversations, behaviors and mindsets affect (and sometimes germinate) everything around us.
Each for Equal in the Military: A Work in Progress
Throughout the world and across the U.S., inequality, discrimination and sexual harassment against women continues. In our military, these issues persist even though women have served for more than 100 years.
When I was in the U.S. Air Force, I was fortunate enough to be shielded from most forms of discrimination, at least in my workplace. In most meetings and during briefings, I was typically the lowest ranking member in the room and also the only female. Was I the only gay person in those meetings, as well? I often didn’t know.
In my time in service, I received an early promotion, many awards, and was provided the opportunity to pursue higher education, which is not always an option for folks in other career fields. With all of those accomplishments, I was still denied the ability to have my truth believed.
In 2010, when I completed basic training and went to intelligence technical training, I was sexually assaulted by a fellow airman on the military base. I never wanted to report the incident given all the factors that you hear about, but I felt if I wanted my troops to report incidents like these and other tragedies, I must follow that guidance and report it.
I spoke to the sexual assault response coordinator and the military police, went to the hospital to document the evidence, and recalled the events over and over again. But when I returned to the base, my leadership and peers did not believe me. I was ostracized from participating in leadership programs and was even placed on the same duty as the airman who sexually assaulted me.
During the investigation, the Office of Special Investigation asked me to even wear a wire to solidify a confession from him. I can still remember his words, “Yes, I did rape you.” Those five words are the only justice that I have today.
Once we went to court, the defense found out I was a lesbian and started an investigation into my past. I served during, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and was now the one that was “breaking the law” and not him. I could not tell the Air Force attorneys I am gay, which meant I couldn’t tell my whole truth — possibly changing the outcome of the case. Luckily, the ban was repealed a few months later. I was no longer under investigation, but he was also found innocent, despite his confession.
My experience is not uncommon at all. One in three women are sexually assaulted in the military. And after military service, they face an uphill battle in attempting to get help from the Veterans Benefits Administration for military sexual trauma.
It’s clear that a “each for equal” campaign is desperately needed in the military and the veteran community, including as we fight for the right of transgender patriots to serve authentically.
Women Who Inspire Me
During my time in the Air Force and throughout my life, I’ve been inspired by many great women, particularly those in leadership roles. It seems only right that, on International Women’s Day, I should tell you about four of them.
Chief Jennifer Anthony served 20 years in the Air Force, achieving the highest enlisted rank of E-9, Chief Master Sergeant. I didn’t work directly with Jennifer and doubt she knows her critical impact on my life, but I applauded her many successes and admired her confidence and caring ways. I still follow her post-military journey and can only hope that I can change as many lives as she did.
Another person who inspires me is Shannon McLay, the CEO and founder of the Financial Gym. Shannon successfully grew her company in the male-dominated world of finance and helps people become financially savvy, no matter how much money they have in the bank. In a world where start-up funds rarely go to female-founded businesses, especially financial ones, she is the epitome of what a fighter and champion of success looks like. She has changed my life for the better, and I am so thankful to have her as part of my story. I continue to thrive because of her bold idea.
And then there’s Laila Ireland, a transgender military veteran who’s one of the bravest women I know. She stands bold and proud of who she is and never gives up. Whenever I question my role in advocacy, Laila is a constant reminder that sharing our experiences matter and we should hold true to who we are.
Finally, there’s the person who stood with me through the aftermath of my sexual assault, Siobhan Celusta. She volunteered as a victim advocate, even though she was a high-ranking military officer, and literally saved my life. She was a constant support for me in the times I needed assurance that I wasn’t alone and that someone believed my story.
Appreciate and Advocate
IWD celebrates and honors all women – women we know and those we’ll never meet. Women with strong and loud voices and women who are forced to be silent. Women in the workforce and in the military.
Please join me today and everyday in lifting up women who inspire us. Tell them in person, give them a shout-out online or pause for a moment to reflect on what they mean to you. If you’re sharing online today, use IWD’s hashtags — #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual — to help spread the word about International Women’s Day. And after today, let’s be active advocates for a gender-equal world. Each for equal.