WASHINGTON D.C.– As we observe Women’s History Month and approach the ten-year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I had the opportunity to interview Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay service member promoted to general officer, about leadership and the responsibility of visibility.
In reviewing Gen. Smith’s biography, what stands out is a career history that reflects a woman operating in predominantly male combat training units and deployment environments. To Gen. Smith however, her experiences were par for the course.
“My experiences were very typical for women in the military in the late 80’s and early 90’s, in that you show up to a unit and you are most likely the only woman. In the company command positions for basic training, there were about 31 captains that had the opportunity to command and there were only two of us who were women at any one time,” said Smith. “It was the same thing when I went to Fort Polk. It was the first time that women had been assigned to the Combat Training Center for the Army. So it was me and maybe two or three other women amongst the 200-300 men that showed up that summer.”
Though the ratios of women to men haven’t changed significantly and this experience is still rather typical for women in the military today, positive changes have developed over time.
“What’s important is that our allies have grown in the ranks. Those individuals who maybe in the past would have purposefully excluded women as not being part of the unit or organization are now allies that are no longer that gatekeeper. To me that’s very positive,” said Smith. “You get a great deal of respect for doing your job well and for being tactically and technically proficient, and as much as people may want to exclude you for your gender, they can’t ignore when you’re good at what you’re doing.”
Recognizing the significance of her presence as a senior female officer, Gen. Smith discussed what she realised throughout her career.
“What I have learned with 35 years of perspective now when people say things like, ‘Wow Smith, you really busted through the glass ceiling,’ is that I’ve really just passed through the hole that other women before me created and have made it a little bit bigger for the women coming behind me,” said Smith. “I have the perspective now to know that progress is iterative. When you’re in it you don’t feel like you’re making progress. You want things to happen faster and you get frustrated that people around you don’t understand, but when you look back over time you realize that these iterations are evidence that people did get it and things have continued to move in a positive direction for women in the military.”
Exploring the intersection of her identity as both a female and a lesbian officer serving under the discriminatory DADT policy, Gen. Smith talked about her experience serving as the Chief of Army Reserve Affairs for U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
“I think that, as a Colonel, the experience was kind of isolating. There weren’t many senior women there and so I didn’t have a peer group of other women, but that same isolation I felt was also a protective factor for me, being there while Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still in place,” said Smith. “In the lockbox back at home was my ‘just in case’ letter, giving Tracey permission to talk about our lives and help people understand what our life was like should something happen to me. I’m glad we’re past the time where families like mine don’t have to do that anymore.”
The DADT policy was repealed in September 2011, finally giving then Colonel Smith the opportunity to have her wife openly acknowledged and a part of her promotion ceremony to the rank of Brig. Gen. After a career of hiding her personal life however, the decision to come out on a public stage was not an easy one.
“The big step was terrifying for me, because as many people who had to hide their life for as many years as I had, it was a big shift for me to be okay with being as open as this promotion ceremony was going to make us. On my own iterative path toward being comfortable with my own life, it was a really big deal,” said Smith.
That fear however, did not outweigh the responsibility of visibility she felt to represent the long-silenced LGBTQ military community.
“As a leader I knew the importance of that ceremony. So from a leader perspective, even though I was afraid, I knew it was the right thing to do just to be a regular military family and step into that role with Tracey,” said Smith. “I took great responsibility in making sure that I did that and created opportunities for others that share my platform in a way that made people understand that we’re just Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines that want to do a good job for our country.”