One Step at a Time: An Airman’s Journey through LGBT acceptance

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sergio A. Gamboa
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Racial discrimination was abolished in the U.S. Armed Force in 1948 leading to the end of segregation in the services. The U.S. military continued its endeavor to be an inclusive, equal opportunity organization as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, allowing lesbian, gay and bisexual members to serve openly.

With our nation’s recognition of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, the Air Force continues the spirit of acknowledgement and continues “Breaking Barriers,” we take a deeper dive into the military LGBT journey of one of our own, Col. Dawn “DJ” Junk, Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, First Air Force and Air Forces Northern, director of strategy, policy, plans, requirements and international affairs. 

“Diversity leads to innovation, which continues to modernize our military allowing for a stronger edge over our adversaries,” said Junk at a recent speaking engagement in honor of LGBT Pride Month. “In addition, our society has recognized the value of diversity and we are a mirror reflection of our society.” 

Witch Hunts

In 1986, at the age of 17, Junk enlisted in the Air Force. As a brand new Airman Basic, she knew she was different. Even so, she did not have a realistic understanding of the difficulties she would face both within her personal life and her military career.

During this time, it was common for the Air Force to conduct “witch hunts” to root out LGBT Airmen.

“I knew who I was, but I didn’t know who I was based on society’s labels and definitions. My naiveness saved me, I was 18 years old and there are these random people hunting down gays and lesbians to charge them with a dishonorable discharge for being who they were and I didn’t really grasp what was happening and how this impacted so many lives.”

This is something she would face through 1994.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

In February 1994, the Department of Defense enacted their Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) directive, which prohibited discrimination of any LGBT military personnel that has chosen not to come out as such.

“Now, I know who I am. I’m proud of it. But, I can’t say anything about it at work,” Junk said.

This was to prevent a dishonorable discharge from her life’s passion, being in the Air Force.

During this time, Junk concluded a 14-year enlisted Air Force career to begin an Air Force officer career as a pilot in 2000. She would also struggle through the end of a long-term relationship with the love of her life, something she could not share with leadership, supervisors or even her coworkers with the exception of one. 

This was a very dark time for her.

“It was devastating, but at least I had a coworker that understood me,” Junk said. “There would be times I would go to the gym, she would come with me and I would cry my eyes out. That small, little dark room was the only area I could find relief.” 

Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

In 2011, DADT was repealed. For the first time, LGBT Airmen were allowed to openly serve. Junk began to notice coworkers taking an interest in her personal life.

“All of a sudden after working with the same individuals for over three years, they started to ask questions about my personal life and my relationship,” she said. “It was very difficult to take in. It took a bit for me to accept that because there was always that period of time where I thought [DADT] could be retracted.”

It wasn’t until she worked on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon in 2014, that she believed the window for retraction had closed.

“When the transgender bathroom facilities solutions were being considered, my concern of retraction quickly dissolved,” Junk said.

It was then she finally began to feel comfortable, sharing a bit more of her personal life with those around her.

Offering Advice

Colonel Junk has faced a multitude of challenges during her 31-year affiliation with the Air Force. She lives by the Air Force Core Values and used them throughout her career, maintaining resiliency and achieving personal and professional goals. 

Junk’s message to all Airmen is to stay true to themselves, go the extra mile, be the best Wingman, complete your Professional Military Education, do the right thing even when nobody is looking, be within your physical training standards and to always live the core values: “Integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.”

Junk shared this message to all in attendance and encourages Airmen to stay true to themselves and follow what they believe.

“I enjoyed what she had to say. It made me feel good about myself,” said Staff Sgt. Ashley Gerlads, 325th Logistics Readiness fleet management and analysis member. “Sometimes when I’m at work I’m afraid to be myself because of what people may think, but I’m glad I got to hear what she said. Be yourself, and if you are doing what is right, you don’t have to worry about anything else.”