Today, I’m excited to welcome Emily Starbuck Gerson, an Air Force military spouse and dear friend, as a guest writer on Jo, My Gosh!
PSCing to a new place is intimidating for any military spouse, but it’s particularly nerve-wracking for those of us in the LGBTQIA community. We worry if the area will be safe and welcoming, if they’ll have any resources or a community to speak of, and if we’ll find any like-minded friends.
I was already living in San Antonio when I met my now-wife, who was recently stationed there for the Air Force. When we met through a mutual friend, I’d known I was bisexual most of my life, but I was very closeted and struggling. Coincidentally, my wife Jamie was also mostly in the closet and beginning to come out as transgender. As a massive city with ever-increasing resources for the LGBTQ community, San Antonio provided the perfect place for both of us to navigate our coming out journeys and get connected with affirming people and organizations.
But once we got married, we were anxious about where our first PCS together would take us. Jamie volunteered for an opening at RAF Lakenheath in England, and when she got it, we felt a mix of fear and excitement. We applied for it in hopes of doing loads of traveling, and we knew England was overall quite LGBTQ-friendly. The base itself was in a very rural area, however, and didn’t know how welcome we’d feel.
Fortunately, since we moved here in the fall of 2019, we’ve had mostly positive experiences, though I won’t lie — it has taken some proactive research and effort to get plugged into the civilian and military LGBTQ communities. But it has enriched our experience, allowed us to live authentically, and I feel more ready for our next PCS, regardless of where we end up. Here’s what worked for me as I navigated being an LGBTQ military spouse in a new place.
Choose where you live carefully
If you get stationed in a large city like San Antonio or Washington, D.C., finding a welcoming area to live is a bit easier since any major metroplex will have a sizable LGBTQ community. This decision becomes a lot harder, and more important, when moving to a more rural area — which, let’s face it, is where most military bases are located.
For example, here in England, those who don’t live on base often rent in one of many nearby sleepy villages surrounded by farmland. There are also some larger towns a little further away (20 to 30 minutes by car), and while many choose those areas for something a bit more lively, they’re still small traditional market towns, and we weren’t sure if we’d feel judged or unsafe.
While we might have been fine in any of those places, we ultimately chose to live in the outskirts of Cambridge, the closest “big town” to base. The downside is that my wife has a 40-minute commute via car (no public transport due to how rural it is), but we decided this was outweighed by the fact that as a university town, Cambridge has a reputation for being the most LGBTQ-friendly in the region, with multiple LGBTQ community groups, events, and nonprofits.
We were also swayed by the fact that Cambridge is the only town near base with direct trains to London, which take less than an hour. Cambridge is small enough that it doesn’t have a dedicated gay bar or restaurant (this was a shock to us after living in big cities with many). We knew convenient access to London would help us feel further connected to the LGBTQ community, and make international travel easier since it’s a major hub.
Before the pandemic, we would occasionally hop on a train and go to a gay bar or see a drag show. Sometimes we returned the same day, while other times we booked a budget hotel and stayed a night or two. So don’t lose hope if you’re stationed somewhere sleepy; perhaps there’s a city with a thriving LGBTQ community that’s too far away to reside in, but perfect for an occasional ‘gaycation.’
There are some exhausting days where my wife wishes we lived closer to base, but overall it’s been incredibly valuable for us to be a short drive from the center of Cambridge and participate actively in the local LGBTQ community (fortunately we got to do a lot of this in-person before COVID turned most things online). Plus, it’s enriched our experience of living abroad since we’ve befriended so many locals and learned more about the English culture.
I’ve met some LGBTQ military families here who live on or near base, and many don’t feel very plugged into the community. This doesn’t bother some people, but since we don’t have kids, it’s especially important for me and my wife to have an active social life with other LGBTQ people and feel comfortable living authentically. Cambridge has been a perfect fit for us in that sense. So don’t default to the closest town to base if there’s somewhere a little further that would be a more friendly place to create a home base.
See if your base has a Diversity and Inclusion committee
Some military bases have formed a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) committee to ensure minority groups are represented and that important observances are recognized. My wife joined her base’s D&I committee several months ago and leads their LGBTQ Pride observance committee.
This means in June, she’s in charge of her base’s Pride decorations, events, and commemorations. Through these efforts, she’s made some new friends and helped infuse the base with a more welcoming attitude toward LGBTQ people (like decorating a very visible area with rainbow flowers).
Outside of that month, the base has other D&I observance events she can assist with, plus an annual Diversity & Inclusion Day, where all of the participating groups have a booth. My wife ran the one for Pride Month, where she had guest speakers talk and passed out a brochure she made about local LGBTQ resources. I helped her run the booth, and it was heartwarming how many Airmen or family members came by eager to connect or learn more about what was in the area. Our nearby sister base, RAF Mildenhall, also has a D&I committee, and at times has worked together with ours to further connect the LGBTQ military community in the area.
Join or start a private organization or club
The D&I committees are fantastic, but their work with the LGBTQ community is mostly focused on recognizing Pride Month once a year.
At RAF Mildenhall, some folks who participated in the D&I committee wanted something year-round with more of an emphasis on support and social interaction. So they recently launched a private organization for LGBTQ+ service members and allies, and while it’s technically for that base, anyone from our base is welcome too.
We recently went to one of their first meetings on their base (with COVID safety protocols in place), where a lesbian military spouse who’s also an Air Force veteran led us through an interactive resiliency training session on coping during tough times.
Even with masks and social distancing, being surrounded by fellow LGBTQ people — especially those in the military world — offered such an important sense of community and connection. Some in the room shared struggles, such as loneliness or single-parenting while a spouse is deployed, and you could tell how being in a nonjudgmental space and in solidarity with others made a big impact. The group has also started organizing some volunteering efforts together.
Find out if your new base has a club like this that you can join, and if not, why not start one? Before the pandemic, one spouse here started a Facebook group for LGBTQ military families to connect, so that’s an option too.
Join an MMAA chapter
Modern Military Association of American (MMAA) is an incredible nonprofit that supports and advocates for LGBTQ military families. My wife and I have worked with them on various projects, and one way they help families like ours is offering over 80 chapters worldwide. These groups provide support, events, and community, so check to see if there’s one in your area.
Explore resources in your local community
Whether your base has a strong LGBTQ presence or not, make sure to see what your local community has to offer. Larger cities tend to have an LGBTQ community center, like San Antonio’s The Center, where you can find support groups, volunteer opportunities, free resources, and community events.
In some areas, there aren’t brick-and-mortar centers, but organized community groups you can join. For example, here in Cambridge, there’s a volunteer-run group called Queer Women in Cambridge. I found their Facebook page and got connected before our PCS, so as soon as we arrived, we could jump right in and attend their Halloween party. Some other local LGBTQ groups here organize on Meetup.com, so search on Facebook and Meetup to see what’s in your new area.
Lastly, find out if your area has an LGBTQ+ Pride festival. Even if you’re stationed in a small city, you may find that there’s a county or regional pride festival. These events are often run by nonprofits year-round, so beyond attending the festival in the summer, there may be other opportunities to get involved.
Look for volunteering opportunities
On that note, volunteering with LGBTQ-oriented nonprofits is a fantastic way to make like-minded friends and learn about your new area. My wife did this in San Antonio with several nonprofits, and it helped her feel more connected to the LGBTQ community, introduced her to wonderful people, and helped her feel she was making a difference. I followed her lead and did the same, and I also found it very rewarding.
Once we moved to Cambridge, my wife started volunteering occasionally with a Cambridge nonprofit for LGBTQ youth. Most activities are currently online during COVID, but it’s only temporary. If your PCS takes you somewhere a bit rural, your volunteering can be even more impactful, especially for LGBTQ youth who may struggle to find support in that area.
Volunteering offers a slightly different experience that simply attending social events. It’s helpful for those who don’t like the bar scene and would rather connect with people while working toward a common goal. Meeting like-minded people is always gratifying, but doing this through community volunteering work can help bring a deeper sense of purpose. Research and see what LGBTQ-focused nonprofits are in your new area.
When all else fails, go online
It’s possible you’ll get stationed somewhere out in the boonies, where you struggle to find any other LGBTQ humans on base or in the local community. At times like this, online communities can be a lifesaver.
MMAA has a private Facebook group that offers support for LGBTQ military families everywhere. Find some online support groups, which are flourishing as a result of Covid. For example, PFLAG, which traditionally offers in-person support meetings for LGBTQ people and their allies, has gone mostly online due to the pandemic. See if any community groups within a few hours of you are doing online meetups. For example, my Cambridge LGBTQ book club has been meeting virtually since the pandemic started, but this has enabled people from smaller towns all around England to join who normally could never make it for an in-person meeting.
The options are endless. And most importantly, you are never alone.
Emily Starbuck Gerson is a Texas-born Air Force spouse currently stationed in England. She serves on the Advisory Board for Military Family Advisory Network. She’s a full-time freelance writer and author of the LGBTQ blog Profiles in Pride.