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News | June 27, 2022

Pride Month: It’s Hard to Be What You Don’t See. Why LGBTQ Visibility Matters.

By Lt. Brittany R. Stromko, Victims’ Legal Counsel Bahrain

Three out of the five Naval Legal Service Command (NLSC) judge advocates in Bahrain openly identify as part of the LGBTQ community.  Why is that remarkable?  Because for the first time in their careers, they are in the majority.  Add in additional queer-identifying attorneys and service members aboard the installation, and you will find a thriving LGBTQ community in Bahrain. And that is something to celebrate this Pride month.
“There are so many of us here,” says Legal Assistance Attorney Lt. Nic Walker, “that it really puts into perspective how far we have come since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed.”
Walker continues, “At times, I carry an assumption that people can still be prejudiced, though thankfully I have not experienced that in my career thus far.  As I look to successful JAG Corps leaders who identify the same way I do, I’ve become more comfortable being my authentic self, in and out of work.  I appreciate the path of acceptance they’ve paved for all of us and I am motivated to do the same.”
One of those visible JAG Corps leaders is Capt. Christopher Williams, commanding officer of Defense Service Office North, who recently visited his command’s branch office in Bahrain and met with local JAG Corps personnel.  
“These junior officers represent the hope of so many who served in silence for fear of investigation and discharge,” says Williams. “As someone who spent the first half of his Navy career under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it made me incredibly proud to see them living fully authentic lives while also making vital contributions to the readiness of our operating forces in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command area of responsibility.  Our team in Bahrain is a powerful reminder that cultivating an environment of dignity and respect allows our people to bring their best to the fight, and that’s ultimately what we’re here to do.”
However, that didn’t always come easy to Walker.
“Early in my career, I found myself speaking very deliberately, using gender-neutral pronouns to discuss my partner and avoiding certain topics about my personal life,” he says.  “Now, conversations flow more naturally as I’m able to speak honestly without having to hide.  Lifting that mental barrier has allowed me to feel more accepted, to form deeper bonds with my colleagues, and to devote more energy and concentration to work, rather than wasting cognitive effort hiding who I am.”
Officer-in-Charge at Region Legal Service Office (RLSO) Europe, Africa Central, detachment Bahrain, Lt. Cmdr. Alvir Sadhwani, began the process of coming out while on active duty in 2013, two years after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“I told my family and friends back home – and, to my surprise, received the support and acceptance I had hoped for,” Sadhwani says.  “Work was the next step.  One day, my commanding officer, executive officer, and I were discussing an underway opportunity I was selected for.  When asked if I had any questions, without context or a smooth transition, I blurted out, ‘I’m gay.’  I can’t help but laugh thinking about how scattered I must have come across.  Their immediate acceptance, in my mind, reflected the sentiment of the larger JAG Corps.”
Sadhwani continues, “During the underway, I decided to maintain a straight persona to avoid making anyone uncomfortable, including myself.  Coincidentally, I had a very vocally homophobic bunkmate.  Over the next eight months, I ignored the anti-gay statements and deflected any notion that I was part of this community.  My bunkmate was a friend and a shipmate – I should have challenged his beliefs.  It’s easy to judge a faceless community and so much harder to hate up close.”
Reflecting on that experience, Sadhwani notes the importance of visibility in the LGBTQ community.
“Prior to coming out, I had an openly gay Indian law professor who simply by being himself made me feel I could do the same,” he says.  “He didn’t know the impact he had on me.  Looking back, had I been more open about my own sexuality during that underway, even if I wasn’t able change the beliefs of my bunkmate, I could have potentially eased the path for struggling LGBTQ junior Sailors.  Now, the idea of being transparently authentic is something I value and strive toward.”
That authenticity is different for each person – the LGBTQ journey is not linear.  I use she/her pronouns, but identify as masculine of center.  I don’t identify as a lesbian, but I do identify as queer.  My identity has changed and may continue changing – and that’s okay.  What is important is that I can live authentically both in and out of the workplace.
That said, living authentically doesn’t always come easy to me.  The military is a difficult place to be gender non-conforming because so many aspects of service fall within a gender binary.  With customs and courtesies that utilize the gender specific “Sir” or “Ma’am,” to uniform and grooming standards, there is little room to exist outside the binary.  
I have to balance a hairstyle that feels authentic to me with ensuring it remains within female hair regulations.  I am often called “Sir,” and, in female restrooms, I am sometimes asked if I am lost.  Twice, while on base and in uniform, people have looked at me and actually run out of the restroom.  These moments burden me to justify my existence in these spaces, something I do not owe anyone.  I have never experienced these types of prejudices or microaggressions from people who know me. Those attitudes and assumptions come from those at a distance.  As Sadhwani says, “It is harder to hate up close.”
Despite the challenges and uncomfortable moments I face because of my gender presentation, I would change nothing about my identity other than understanding it at a younger age.  Growing up, I did not see examples of people presenting along the gender spectrum.  It is so hard to be what you don’t see.  It took until my second year of law school, when I was 27 years old, to have the confidence to wear a suit instead of a dress to a formal event.  I was 30 before I faded my hair.  It was euphoric to finally understand what makes me feel comfortable and confident.  I owe this euphoria to fellow law students I watched succeed professionally while being their authentic selves.  I now want to be that person for others.
The struggle I face being gender non-conforming is amplified for our nonbinary shipmates – those who do not identify with either gender and utilize they/them pronouns.  They do not yet have the ability to exist fully authentically within the military.  While there is no official ban on being nonbinary, there is also no official recognition that nonbinary Sailors exist or guidance on how they should adhere to gendered policies.  And for our transgender shipmates, a transition is even more challenging within a binary system.
While there is more work to do, this Pride month we reflect on how far we’ve come since the repeal of Don't Ask, Don’t Tell.  Without the repeal, there would be no visibility of the LGBTQ community here in Bahrain.  Instead, Lt. Morgan McGill, who currently is stationed at RLSO Southeast and is joining the Bahrain legal community later this summer, can rest assured she will be fully accepted.
“I was initially apprehensive about my orders to Bahrain as I was unsure how my sexuality would be perceived,” she says.  “When I found out there was a strong LGBTQ community, I felt comfort knowing I am joining an accepting JAG Corps community with strong leadership and mentorship.”
An accepting JAG Corps community is exactly what we are celebrating this Pride month – from the leaders who gave Walker the confidence to be his authentic self in the workplace; to Sadhwani’s commanding officer and executive officer, who immediately accepted him; to Williams, who continues to pave a way for the younger generation to serve openly; to my mentors, who encouraged me to speak about my experiences in this article.  We continue to strive toward a more inclusive workforce where all our Sailors can bring their authentic selves to the fight – we will be a stronger Navy for it.
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