When former Navy linguist Lindsay Church was a student at the University of Washington, she was part of a team trying to build a community of fellow veterans.
But as a self-identified queer woman, she sometimes felt like she herself didn’t belong in that community.
“On my first day, I got to hear many things about what gay people are and was made fun of without anybody even recognizing that I was in the room,” she said.
Now, Church is the assistant director of the university’s Student Veteran Life office, which also works with the Queer Resource Center on campus. And she wants to make sure other student veterans don’t feel the same way she did.
“When you see yourself reflected in leadership, you want to be a part,” said Church, who also recently co-founded the nonprofit Minority Veterans of America.
Church and three other panelists at the Student Veterans of America national conference Friday shared their experiences during a discussion on what it’s like to be a veteran who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer and how campuses can better engage student veterans in this group.
“I think it’s unfair that an LGBT veteran has to come out of the military and feel like they don’t fit in at an institution or feel like they have to be a different version of themselves where they go,” said Alisha Guffy, founder of The Ask and Tell Project who identifies as a gay woman.
Guffy said President Trump’s recent efforts to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military has brought renewed attention to this topic, sparking interest in the intersection between the military and LGBTQ communities.
The panelists advised both LGBTQ students and their straight allies in the audience to start engaging other students and campus leaders in conversations. Samantha Fergus, a tattoo artist and SVA chapter vice president in Oregon, suggested inviting people to attend campus pride events, where they may see that LGBTQ people don’t fit a particular stereotype.
David Christopher Keener, a Coast Guard veteran on the panel, said it’s important to get out of your comfort zone and listen to the perspective of other people — even when it’s hard.
“You have to come together and have that ultimate goal of unifying and that’s never going to happen if you completely turn away from it,” he said. “If you see an organization like VFW or (American Legion) or something and say, ‘Oh that’s just not my type of environment,’ make it your type of environment.”
Church said for SVA leaders, it’s going to take a strategic plan to be more inclusive of LGBTQ veterans and create a space where they feel comfortable.
“As you start to do this targeted outreach, people start to float up,” she said. “When you make it a part of your strategic program, you’ll see veterans come out of the woodwork when they, again, see themselves in leadership.”