SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, North Carolina —
SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, NC – Long before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was even enacted – let alone repealed – a Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Airman was a pioneer of change, blazing the way to LGBTQ+ Airmen who are now serving.
Lieutenant Colonel Barbara Wujciak, 4e Medical Group optometrist and 916th Aerospace Medicine Squadron reservist, was expelled from the US Naval Academy in 1981 when her roommates found letters to her then-girlfriend and reported her.
“I lost my scholarship and my college project all at once,” said Wujciak, a native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, who instead earned a teaching degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In the early 1980s, his job as a math teacher was also on the line due to his sexual orientation; so she pivoted again and went to optometry school, opening her own practice in eastern North Carolina in 1992.
“Around 2003, I found service academy gay and lesbian groups online,” Wujciak said.
Through the internet, she was able to connect with other gay service academy alumni who had experienced discrimination. By then, DADT policy was firmly in place, technically allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual members to serve — but only if they remained “in the closet.” So Wujciak and his associates banded together in the interest of change.
“We were stirring up the crowd,” she said with a smile. “Hundreds of us lobbied Congress, visited Congressional offices and told our stories.”
It took years of petitioning policy makers, but Wujciak eventually began to see the legislation leaning in the direction of permanent change and decided – despite how she had been treated before – to join the military, this time as a US Air Force Reservist.
In December 2010, 28 years after being expelled from the US Naval Academy, Wujciak graduated from officer school. On the day she graduated, the Senate voted to overturn DADT and finally allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to serve openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. The DADT was officially repealed in September 2011, ending a 50-year ban and 17 years of secrecy and silence for lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the U.S. military.
“I was part of a movement that really changed history,” Wujciak said. “When young airmen come in now and say ‘my wife’ or ‘my husband’, [about an LGBTQ+ partner]it warms my heart to know that they are free.
Because of people like Wujciak who fought for the civil rights of others, couples like Lt. Col. Hattie McAviney, commanding officer of the 4th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, and his wife, Staff Sgt. Kayleigh McAviney, 335e The First Sergeant of the Fighter Generation Squadron can marry and receive all the benefits to which married service members are entitled. When the McAvineys’ partnership began on the heels of the repeal of the DADT, they said military culture had not yet changed with policy changes and people routinely assumed that Lt. Col. McAviney was married to a man.
“I had to rehearse how to respond to people,” said Lt. Col. McAviney, whose blood family has not accepted his relationship. “But I was lucky; because of the timing of our story, my coming out, and our marriage, I had a supportive family from the Air Force. Thanks to them, I can freely and confidently say that I am married to an enlisted woman.
The people had no malicious intent with their assumptions, according to Staff Sgt. McAviney; however, it was a time when people were not yet aware of the changes and did not realize how common it was to be gay in the military. Their same-sex relationship and the social and emotional perceptions that came with it weren’t the only challenges they faced together.
“My wife and I have had some great times together, both personally and professionally,” said Staff Sergeant. McAviney, who is currently in Southwest Asia completing his seventh deployment. “Our predicaments range from responding together as first medics on the scene, to a plane crash while on deployment, to the death of friends, family denial for being gay, and we don’t ‘ve never been together for more than nine consecutive months throughout our relationship. Despite all these challenges we have faced and continue to face, I wouldn’t choose anyone else to be with. She is my rock, my life partner and definitely the better half.
The plane crash they responded to together in 2013 changed both of their lives. They had flown together to their deployment location on that plane the day before it crashed, and the crew members who were killed were members of their unit.
“This kind of event makes you realize that life is short,” said Lt. Col. McAviney, who has deployed six times in her career. “You never know when this will end, so be yourself, love who you love, and be kind.”
It’s because of their struggles that these proud LGBTQ+ Airmen are passionate about fighting for the right thing and sharing their stories – so others feel empowered to be themselves too.
“In my view, Pride Month is more than just a recognition of acceptance by the LBGTQ+ community,” said Master Sgt. McAviney. “This provides an opportunity to remind everyone, whether or not they are part of the LBGTQ+ community, that they should be proud and proud of who they are, regardless of their differences. It’s a month to show love and acceptance for all.