The spring of 2021 has been an especially proud season for the Coast Guard in Alaska. Members at Sector Anchorage hosted an historic inaugural event at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson April 16, establishing the Northern Lights Chapter of Coast Guard Spectrum, an affiliate of the Department of Homeland Security's Spectrum employee association. Within the Coast Guard, this affinity group represents the LGBTQIAP+ community, as well as their friends, family, allies and advocates. Coast Guard affinity groups promote inclusive and diverse work environments and advocate for innovative changes in the service. That's exactly what Northern Lights Chapter members have been doing in the 49th state, with unwavering support from Coast Guard leadership.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Carla Evans, an operations specialist stationed in Kodiak, with enthusiastic reinforcement from Capt. Leanne Lusk, commander, Sector Anchorage, led the charge to establish the chapter, with support from other Coast Guard members around the state. Evans said she was inspired by some of the DHS Spectrum co-founders, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, Lt. j.g. Caleb Tvrdy, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek Smith, who alongside four others, collaboratively created the group in May 2019.
“The unique aspect of Coast Guard Spectrum, that sets us apart from other affinity groups, is that our purpose isn’t focused on one singular group of people,” said Smith. “We are very intentional in ensuring we operate within an intersectional and anti-racist framework. We know from lived experience that the LGBTQIAP+ community is not just white, cisgender, or male. As such, we make the conscious choice to advocate for all marginalized communities whether that is members who are living with HIV, transgender members, Black gay members, etc. Whenever you are in the vanguard you can expect a certain level of resistance to the change you are trying to create. This has certainly been the case for us and the changes for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion that we have been trying to make. Despite the pushback we have received, we continue to create intentional, psychologically safe spaces, that allow for all members, regardless of identity, to feel they are able to show up as their authentic selves. I continue to feel a great sense of pride each day as more Spectrum chapters are formed across the country, and as our membership continues to grow.”
During a heartfelt speech at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Anchorage, Capt. Lusk reminded virtual attendees from across the country, as well as those present in the room, that despite geographic isolation, the one thing uniting all Coast Guard members is an emphasis on people and community.
“Our service has come a long way since the time I first took the oath, but we still have a long way to go,” said Lusk. “While my LGBTQIAP+ family, friends and colleagues legally no longer have to hide their genuine selves, we still find areas in our service where individuals are unwilling to open their minds and hearts, blatantly express hurtful statements and bigoted remarks, or subtly exhibit micro-aggressions. The lack of empathy and compassion for our shipmates is dehumanizing, run contrary to our core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty, and in many cases are illegal.”
Lt. Sarah Gomez-Lorraine, chaplain, Sector Anchorage, then provided a prayer. Virtual attendees followed with inspirational testimony for their Anchorage audience, expressing the difference Coast Guard Spectrum membership has made in their personal and professional lives.
Gomez-Lorrain said the event represented for her a welcome and necessary paradigm shift, well suited for a lifesaving service.
"In today’s military, I find that my leaders value my authentic leadership more than sensationalizing who I’m attracted to," she said. "The Coast Guard trains tirelessly to navigate the most challenging conditions to save lives. Coast Guard Spectrum is another way to train for completing the mission – saving lives. As an LGBTQIAP+ Christian chaplain I have been entrusted to lead and advise with a unique skill set, through challenging environments, to add to our life saving mission. During the Northern Lights Spectrum ceremony we embodied the words of theologian John Shelby Spong, ‘I think anything to give people a sense of their own worth and dignity is God.’ This is a perfect time and place for a chaplain to be where it matters, when it matters."
Still, many in the Coast Guard don’t understand the need to celebrate the acceptance of LGBTQIAP+ members in the workplace. Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa McKenzie, Spectrum Northern Lights Chapter member and Sector Anchorage Leadership Diversity Advisory Council co-chair, shed some light on why open, public recognition for the acceptance of marginalized communities is so important to her.
“I display a rainbow flag and photos of my wife and son at my desk to communicate my sexual orientation to those around me,” said McKenzie. “I do this to show pride in who I am and my family as well as my membership in a supportive community. But it's also a defense mechanism used to deter homophobic or transphobic conversation in the workplace. I present as straight, so there have been so many times when people assume that it’s okay to make dehumanizing and derogatory statements in my presence. You can’t always tell that someone is a member of the queer community by looking at them. For some of us, displaying the flag or photos of our loved ones is a way to prevent dehumanizing expression and behavior in our presence, and to make it clear that hateful behavior is not welcome here."
McKenzie said the most crucial components of creating a culture of acceptance and equality in the Coast Guard are open-minded members who seek education.
"As a lesbian and Spectrum member, I feel a responsibility to advocate for our community," she said. "Part of that means continuously learning, so that I can share that knowledge with others who don’t identify as LGBTQIAP+. A good place to start is learning what all those letters mean: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and/or Ally, Pansexual, and others. Even that acronym presents an opportunity for continuous learning and growth, because it’s constantly evolving. I think education is critical to developing empathy and reaching acceptance, so I’m trying to do my part by bridging the gap. Being a lesbian does not make me an expert on all things related to sexual orientation or gender identity, but it does give me perspective. Spectrum membership means being willing to educate, to have difficult but respectful conversations, and to advocate. The Northern Lights Chapter is about reinforcing psychological safety for LGBTQIAP+ people, but it’s also about creating an opportunity for others to learn about marginalized communities.”
McKenzie is one of many LGBTQIAP+ Coast Guard members who served before the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011.
“I don’t think many people realize how big a role someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity plays in everyday life, even in the workplace,” she said. “It’s who we are. I’m gay regardless of the space I occupy. It’s part of my identity just like being a mom is part of my identity. Imagine not feeling safe enough to speak honestly when asked what you did for the weekend, not feeling comfortable enough to say, ‘I went camping with my wife and son.’ I hope one day we reach that point where someone’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter and it isn’t something we need to talk about, but we aren’t there yet. Our service has certainly come a long way since 2011 and the commandant’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan has laid the foundation for how to get the Coast Guard to where it needs to be. It has given us hope and illuminated a path for changing workplace culture and climate, but the work continues. I hope the establishment of this affinity group in Alaska will help us advance our goal of reinforcing psychological safety and inclusion of all members, and it will serve as a support network for those who need it."
The Coast Guard’s latest Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy update June 12, 2020, protects members from discrimination and harassment based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. But policy does not immediately translate into a shift in attitude or workplace climate—both of those are dictated by each member of the Coast Guard workforce, every day.
Spectrum Northern Lights Chapter founder Evans thinks the affinity group will help promote some positive change at the individual level.
“More so now than ever, the LGBTQIAP+ community needs and deserves visibility,” said Evans. “We now have the physical presence as a recognized affinity group to influence change, and truly provide the emotional and physical support and advocacy necessary for changing hearts and minds within our organization.”
Evans understands that those changes won't come without gaining community support—especially in a place like Kodiak, where the Coast Guard is embedded in the island's culture. There she's been working closely with Monica Claridge, a school teacher at East Elementary, along with others, to raise inclusive support for the LGBTQIAP+ community.
"Being able to link up with Monica and a handful of other community leaders in town has been integral in establishing our Spectrum Northern Lights Chapter as an organization that not only serves our Coast Guard community, but also the Kodiak Island Borough as well," said Evans.
Kodiak Coast Guard Spectrum Northern Lights members, Kodiak School System Gender and Sexuality Alliance members and others teamed up for a Pride rock painting event, and built a Pride-themed float for the 2021 Kodiak Crab Festival parade May 29th, earning first place in the float competition. Thirty people marched alongside the float with Pride flags. The alliance, tentatively known as Kodiak Pride, has organized a Pride Run 5k/1 mile walk scheduled in Kodiak Borough June 26th, to include a post-race celebration complete with food trucks.
"We've been working for visibility, community and inclusivity," said Claridge. "We've received feedback from community members that our efforts make Kodiak feel more like home. It's been really neat to see how much the community has embraced us."
"Seeing the passion and creativity specifically from younger community members throughout the Pride planning season here in Kodiak, I felt incredibly inspired," said Evans.
Carrying that motivation forward, Evans, Claridge and others are working to establish a mentorship group in Kodiak, to encourage further education, support, and an overall sense of belonging for the LGBTQIAP+ young people and allies that live there.
"We're planning events intended to be simple and fun," said Evans. "We're looking at easy hikes, coffee meet and greets, and game nights, to create positive spaces where our youth can come as their authentic selves and feel comfortable to exist without judgement. In creating this mentorship program, I hope we can create something that lasts long after we have departed our respective Coast Guard assignments here in Alaska."
Spectrum co-founders agree the key to changing more hearts and minds of Coast Guard members and others lies with what are known in the LGBTQIAP+ community as “allies and advocates.” Allies are friends and supporters of the LGBTQIAP+ community and advocates are those who take action toward ending their oppression.
“Too often, those who are oppressed are the ones advocating to end the oppression,” said original Spectrum co-founder Tvrdy. “This is not effective and can even be detrimental to those individuals and their cause without support from people not directly impacted by the oppression.”
“Everyone plays a role in defeating hate and building environments where all people can thrive,” said Spectrum co-founder, Young-McLear. “This cannot solely be the burden of those who are already marginalized or harmed.”
Perhaps the Northern Lights Chapter's greatest ally and advocate is Rear Adm. Nathan A. Moore, Coast Guard 17th District commander, who said he was proud when he reported in late April, to see his people headed in the right direction.
"Creating and sustaining a culture of respect, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion is one of the Coast Guard's top mission priorities," said Moore. "Our service enthusiastically embraces all members without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. I’m a proud ally and advocate for our LGBTQIAP+ members here in Alaska, and look forward to all that we’ll achieve here together.”