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LGBTQ+ mentoring event focuses on respect, acceptance

  • Published
  • By Michele Donaldson
  • Air Force Materiel Command

The Air Force Materiel Command Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility team hosted a Cross-Cultural Mentoring Panel in conjunction with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) Pride Month, June 7.  Nearly 250 AFMC Airmen and U.S. Space Force Guardians participated in the virtual event.

Panel members included Troy McIntosh, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Reserve Affairs and Airman and Guardian Readiness; Eddie Weaver, Director of Intelligence, Fighter and Advanced Aircraft Directorate, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center; Maj. John Nussbaum, Transportation Working Capital Fund Program Manager, Detachment 9, Scott Air Force Base; Katie Sheets, Electromagnetic Interference and Electromagnetic Compatibility Laboratory Director, Air Force Research Laboratory; and Tech. Sgt. Jenna Farthing, Support Flight Chief, 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Training Squadron, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The fight for respect and dignity in the LGBTQ+ community has been ongoing for decades. The different generations, lifestyles and careers represented by the panel reflected that history.

Some panelists, like Nussbaum and Sheets, served on active duty during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. Their experiences were different from Farthing, who is a relatively new Airman, and McIntosh who served in a time when it was a great risk to come out.

“I hid myself in a big world—it was very cloak and dagger,” said McIntosh. “I focused on doing my job well, because the more awards I won, the less they were looking at my sexual preference.”

Overcommitting at work and struggling to find the right work/life balance was familiar to the others on the panel as well. McIntosh was encouraged by his mentors and eventually became comfortable with his own identity. He is now a champion for LGBTQ+ matters at the Pentagon and advocates for others.

“It took me 35 years in the Air Force (active duty and civilian) to say out loud that I had a husband,” he said. “I found that we should not assume what others feel, and we should give them the opportunity to know who we really are. We are special, and they should be privileged to know who we are and what we bring to the table.”

Mentoring in the LGBTQ+ community is unique. Even if they are not disowned or rejected, LGBTQ+ individuals don’t usually have family and friends who are able to pass on coping skills from shared experiences. Support groups can provide “found families.”

“Those ‘found families’ are crucial,” said Farthing. “I was lucky in that my family is supportive, but being a mentor allows me to fill that void for others.”

Other panel members reiterated that commitment to mentoring others, even those who are outside of their area of expertise.

“We have to be ready to provide whole-of-life mentorship,” said Weaver. “Sometimes I’m called upon to mentor people from other letters of the acronym or to parents and family members of LGBTQ+ members.”

Having leaders who are open and accessible about their lifestyle is also important and is something that many of the panel members did not have themselves.

“Speak openly about your identity so that people learn its ok to be a leader that has a unique identify and unique interests,” said McIntosh. “The Air Force is made up of individuals. It’s a collective, and people need to see themselves in their leaders to know that they can get there.”

Mentors provide more than just sharing of knowledge and experiences. They also provide a listening ear and help in finding helpful resources.

“We make ourselves a safe place and then learn more about the other aspects of the larger group community,” added Nussbaum. “That’s something everyone can do.”

Treating people with respect and empathy, while providing a listening ear, goes a long way toward ensuring that Airmen can overcome obstacles and do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Weaver makes it a point to assist those with questions to find resources that can help them better understand the LGBTQ+ community and how to communicate effectively with others.

“There are many communications available that can be used to gain better understanding on a wide gamut of topics,” said Weaver. “Some of those include talking with diversity champions like those on this panel, contacting the Air Force DEIA program offices, and learning more from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD) website, the LGBTQ+ Initiative Team or LIT, and the Trevor Project.”

The resources are not just for those who are in the LGBTQ+ community. Supervisors, coworkers, and family members can also benefit from learning more.

“Supervisors need to learn to respond, and not react when someone comes to them for help,” added Sheets. “If you are not sure what to do or say, take in the information calmly, and respond that you will get back with them. Make sure you do get back with them.”

Change is not easy, but AFMC recognizes the value of diversity. It continues efforts to promote acceptance and inclusion through conversations such as this mentoring session.

“Getting used to being comfortable with being uncomfortable is important for mentors,” continued Weaver. “Sometimes supervisors and mentors are the only foothold Airmen have to cling to. Compassion and acceptance are the key.”

Diversity is more than race, gender, and ethnicity — it means diversity of thought, ability, background, language, culture, and skills.

“It’s my personal mission to ensure that all current and future AFMC leaders understand that valuing diversity helps us to unlock the potential we have within the United States Air Force,” said Brianna Russ, AFMC Inclusionary Program Manager. “Diversity of all kinds causes us to be more creative, more innovative, and more agile as a command.”

This event was part of the AFMC Cross-Cultural Mentoring series. The next event will focus on Civilian Personnel Action Analysis and will be held July 25, 2 – 3:30 pm ET.