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Megan Houk, Adanna Johnson-Evans, Ph.D., Frank Golom, Ph.D., Melinda Capaldi, Psy.D.

Exploration of Military Culture, Gender and Nonheteronormative Identity in the United States Air Force

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Military culture surrounds ideals that are steeped in tradition (Moore, 2011), including a warrior ethos, establishment of hierarchy that is strictly followed, uniformity and masculinity (Allsep, 2013; Hall, 2008; Moore, 2011; Redmond et al, 2014). There was a time in military history that specific groups of individuals, such as women and those who identify with a non-heteronormative sexual orientation or as transgendered, were not allowed to serve in the military (DOD, 1982; Pennington, 2008). Historically, this culture included the exclusion of women altogether or from combat. In regards to the exclusion from combat, the “risk rule” was instated in 1988 which stated that all services, including the USAF, must close all combat units and noncombat jobs to women where there is a high degree of risk of death or capture (Gordon & Ludvigson, 1991). Former President Clinton rescinded this rule, but direct combat jobs remained restricted to only men, known as the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy (Cushman, 2012). It was not until this past year in 2016 that we saw this final restriction of women in the military repealed and women able to serve in any capacity in the military (Rosenberg & Phillips, 2015). In regards to service members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, the military has imposed several restrictions. These ranged from complete exclusion, as was previously seen in regards to women, to allowance of service deemed unacceptable to be discussed openly with other military members, referred to as the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy (Davis, 2010). As new legislation progresses and the allowance of such individuals to serve openly moves forward (such as with as a repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and the allowance of transgendered service members in the service), the steadfast culture of the military has uncovered resistance to this seemingly progressive legislation (Burelli, 2012; Cushman, 2012; Ring, 2016; Rizzo & Cohen, 2010). Lesbian identified active duty service members and veterans represent the intersection of two groups of minorities (women and nonheternormative-identified individuals) that have arguably been impacted by military culture and various pieces of restrictive legislation for decades.

This study will explore lesbian identified USAF service members’ perceptions and experiences of military culture and recent legislation impacting the LGBT military community. Specifically, the researcher will be considering the following research questions: 1) What are lesbian identified service women’s views on traditional (i.e., masculine/warrior) military culture?; 2) What is the relation of perceived discrimination (either self-experienced or observed) based on sexual orientation and/or gender to the view of the lesbian service woman’s identity?; 3) What are lesbian service women’s views on the recent policy changes (repeal of DADT, allowance of service members who identify as transgendered, allowance of women in combat, etc.) that have affected the military LGBT community?; 4) What are lesbian service women’s thoughts about future policy and treatment of the military LGBT community?

The goal of this study is to interview approximately ten lesbian-identified service or former service members to seek a better understanding of the potential impact of their service and military culture on their identity as a woman and as a lesbian. The sample will consist of at least ten lesbian-identified women who have served or are currently serving in the USAF in an active duty capacity since 2001. The sample will be obtained via purposive and snowball sampling. The proposed study will utilize an interpretative phenomenology analysis (IPA) qualitative research approach to explore the experiences of lesbian service member within the military culture and seek to understand their thoughts and perceptions of recent legislation affecting the LGBT military community. It is anticipated that the results from this study will describe experiences of lesbian USAF service members within a military framework, examine aspects of military culture and possible effects on the LGBT military community, and perhaps inform the practices and resources provided to clinicians who seek to treat LGBT service and veteran service members in mental health treatment centers.

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