WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Living in a small town in Kansas did not afford many opportunities for Staff Sgt. Hayden Ullery-Oatney, so at 18, he took the oath and joined the Air Force. Ever since, it has been a journey of growth and self-discovery.
“I did not feel like there was anything there for me in Kansas, so I wanted to get away,” he said. “My parents did not have much money so the Air Force was my best bet to go to college, have job security, and to travel and see the world.”
But Ullery-Oatney, an occupational safety apprentice in the 88th Air Base Wing’s Safety Office, had been keeping a secret, fearful he would not be accepted by his fellow Airmen if it came out.
“I think I knew for a long time that I was gay and part of that community,” Ullery-Oatney said. “Growing up in Kansas was pretty conservative, so being in that small-town mindset, I was fearful of coming out and being myself. So I hid it for the longest time. In high school, there were rumors and people talking about me, but I still was not comfortable, and even though I knew deep down that my parents loved me, I was always afraid to tell them.”
It wasn’t until after he joined the Air Force that he finally had the courage to be his true self.
“It took me a long time to love myself and not care what others thought,” he said.
Ullery-Oatney says he came out during his first assignment as a Security Forces “Defender” at RAF Lakenheath, England.
“I was depressed and my flight mates could tell and would ask if I needed to talk. I had this big secret and I didn’t know how to say it,” he recalled. “One of my good friends sat me down and said, ‘Listen, we are here for you. I know you don’t have family here, but we are your family, and if you have anything you need to tell us, we are here for you.’”
Encouraged by the support, Ullery-Oatney first came out to his flight and was again reassured and told nothing had changed. Afterward, he said he finally got the courage to tell his parents, who also offered their unconditional love, saying it did not change a thing for them, either.
Since joining the Air Force, Ullery-Oatney said he has never had a negative experience serving in the military while openly gay.
“It has been nothing but love and support,” he added. “And what was reassuring is that just in 2011, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed and I came in 2013, so I did not know if that mindset was still there.”
Being gay, however, Ullery-Oatney is always having to come out every time he meets new people, he shared. That’s a constant in the Air Force.
“Each time, it has been a different experience when someone learns I’m gay,” he said. “I have had people slip up and say something and then realize it and ask, ‘I can’t really say that, can I?’ And I would reply, ‘Well no, and here is why.’”
Another time, a co-worker asked if he could help pick out a gift, assuming he’d be “good at it” as a gay man, Ullery-Oatney recalled.
“We all have learned biases that we need to unlearn as we grow; it is a lifelong learning,” he said. “When I grew up in Kansas, I went to school with only one African American. Then, going into the Air Force and seeing different races, cultures and backgrounds was a shell shock, and what I learned about myself is that I had a lot to unlearn and needed to educate myself about others.
“It’s great to see openness and people ask questions. If people are afraid to ask, we will not progress; we need to have these discussions. If someone told me they are not trying to be derogatory and just want to understand, it’s fine, ask me.”
Ullery-Oatney said he is seeing progress for the LGBTQ community serving in the Air Force and it’s getting better and easier to be themselves.
“It may seem tough at first. You might not have your usual support system in place, but I found out that anywhere you go, you are going to get that support and you are going to be OK,” he said.
“Be open, be yourself and if you feel you are being targeted, know that there is zero tolerance and it will be taken care of. And if you are struggling, there are resources out there to help you.”
Resources available to the LGBTQ community can be found at Wright-Patterson AFB’s Airmen and Family Readiness Center, Military OneSource via www.militaryonesource.mil/ and the Greater Dayton LGBTQ Center at www.daytonlgbtcenter.org. Support for parents and family members of LGBTQ individuals is available through PFLAG Dayton at www.pflagdayton.org.