Interview: Shattering the military’s gay glass ceiling

When did you first enlist? What were some of your early assignments?

I was commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1986 at the University of Oregon. I attended college on a four-year ROTC scholarship. My first assignment was in the Republic of Panama, which was great for a new lieutenant. I love that I was exposed to a non-U.S. culture and I really learned to appreciate cultures that are different than mine, and to also be thankful for the life I had in the United States.

The one-year anniversary of the DADT repeal implementation is quickly approaching. In your view, how has military culture changed in the year that gay and lesbian soldiers have been allowed to serve openly?

I don’t really think the military culture has changed. The Army was already resilient and diverse. Repeal simply added another layer of diversity. So far, all indications are that repeal has been overall positive.

How did you manage to stay under the radar during the DADT years? Were you ever worried about being outed and disciplined or even discharged?

I stayed off the map, so-to-speak, by keeping my two lives separate. I didn’t talk about my home life to my military peers. I compartmentalized my two lives in my mind and in how I interacted in the world. Individuals serving under DADT were worried about being outed and it was always in the background, which is why there was so much diligence to keep the two lives separate.

How long have you and your wife, Tracey Hepner, been together? Has she always been supportive of your career in the military? She sure looked proud in photos from your promotion ceremony.

Tracey and I met in 2004 and were married in Washington, D.C., on 31 March 2012. We were married at the Jefferson Memorial. She understands that a soldier wants to serve, and she marginalized herself so that I could serve. She understood that I had to compartmentalize my life and lead two separate lives. She understood, but it didn’t mean that as a civilian she had to be silent.

I am so proud of Tracey’s participation as a partner who provided direct testimony and discussion to the Department of Defense Comprehensive Working Group, the lead Pentagon entity responsible for conducting the study that measured the impact that potentially repealing DADT would have upon military readiness.

We imagined that her participation was risky to my career, but you reach a point where risk feels necessary. The DoD was very professional and kept the identities of the participants off the record. Tracey was a powerful voice to the comprehensive working group, informing understanding within the DoD about LGBT military families.

What are some of the outstanding issues that gay and lesbian soldiers still face, like gaining spousal benefits and family housing?

The Department of Defense is continuing to work through how to support all military families. The DoD General Counsel Jeh Johnson, who spoke at the Pentagon LGBT Pride event and was also the lead for the Comprehensive Working Group, noted in his Pentagon remarks that “The repeal of DADT reveals certain inequities between similarly situated couples in the military community. This troubles many of our leaders. On the other hand, we must comply with current law, including the defense of marriage act.”

I understand that the Department of Defense must comply with law, but I am comforted by Jeh Johnson’s remarks.

What advice do you have for gay and lesbian soldiers or people considering joining the military in the post-DADT era?

My advice is to remain focused on that service to the country is a selfless act. The first concern should be to serving something larger than you. If a young person feels called to service. They should answer that call now.

Are you comfortable with being identified as role model?

I am growing into my “role model” identification. I would suggest that simply being gay isn’t any sort of leader attribute, but I have come to believe that people are identifying with the personal courage and the integrity that I exhibited by having Tracey introduced as my partner at the promotion ceremony, and by having her put that star on my shoulder. In addition to my father, her parents also participated in the ceremony. It was truly a family event.

Tracey and I talked in length prior to my promotion about my pending responsibilities, and we agreed that we needed to live an authentic life. We are a military family that happens to be gay, not a gay family that happens to be military. Our role as a couple is to support our soldiers and their families.


Top photo: Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith (right) and her wife, Tracey Hepner, celebrated at Smith’s promotion ceremony. (Photos courtesy U.S. Army Reserve)