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'Do Ask, Do Tell,' says Defense Health Agency Pride Month Panelist

Image of The Defense Health Agency observed LGBTQIA+ Pride Month with a June 21 virtual panel discussion on the theme “Equality Without Exception, Pride in All Who Serve.” (Graphic by Lance Cpl. Leighton Winslow). The Defense Health Agency observed LGBTQIA+ Pride Month with a June 21 virtual panel discussion on the theme “Equality Without Exception, Pride in All Who Serve.” (Graphic by Lance Cpl. Leighton Winslow)

“My hope for an inclusive workplace is one where I can bring all aspects of my identity to work, so that I can do the best job possible.”

This comment from Lisa Polyak, an environmental engineer at the Defense Centers for Public Health, Aberdeen, Maryland, underscored the “Equality Without Exception, Pride in all who Serve” theme of the Defense Health Agency’s June 21 observance of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month.

“This year’s theme is a reminder that America’s diversity is truly our greatest asset,” said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jeannie Sousa, senior enlisted leader for the DHA director of staff, in her opening remarks at the event. “It’s also the perfect time to reaffirm our commitment to celebrate each other’s unique knowledge, abilities, and perspectives.”

Polyak was one of four panelists who focused the conversation on building inclusive communities. Other panelists included: U.S. Air Force Maj. Jordan Simonson, DHA clinical psychologist, mental health flight commander, and deputy operational medical readiness squadron commander at Fairchild Air Force Base; Antonios Chionis, a chemist at the laboratory sciences directorate of the Defense Centers for Public Health, Aberdeen, and chair of their Diversity Equity Inclusion Accessibility Advisory Council; and U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jaiil F. Smith, a bioenvironmental engineering technician at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The discussion was moderated by Paul Reynolds, lead for the DHA special observances program in the DHA’s Force Resilience Office.

The panelists emphasized how inclusivity is necessary to accomplish the goals of the Department of Defense and the military.

“It’s not only the humane and acceptable way to be, but also boosts our strength for the military health work that we all love and are invested in,” said Chionis. “Inclusivity helps us by allowing folks to express themselves. And not have the fear of their opinions and experiences discounted because of either what they look like or who they love.”

Simonson noted that with just around 20% of the American population being fit to serve, inclusive DHA and military service policies make it possible for all who are eligible to serve.

In addition, Polyak referenced Gallup polling data from 2021 finding that nearly 20% of Generation Z adults identified as LGBT. “Given that’s the population pool we recruit from in order to fill the military services… we should hopefully make a community within DOD that looks welcoming to those folks.”

“This is how the world is going to be moving forward,” Smith said. “These are the people that are going to fight the next fight.”

The panelists talked about the roles advocates and allies can play in fostering inclusion. Polyak said, “do ask, do tell,” in a reference to the repealed policy that banned gay Americans from openly serving in the military. She said, “do ask people about their experiences and once you have that knowledge, do tell it in relevant settings where you can make a difference. Especially if you’re not part of that group you’re discussing.”

A common theme from many of the more than 300 employees who attended the virtual event was that the DHA offered a safe place for members of the LGBTQIA+ to be themselves.

The panelists wrapped up the discussion with reflections on next steps.

“Find your community,” said Polyak. “Find folks who share your lived experience.”

Simonson spoke about the need for more LGBTQIA+ data to identify the needs of the community and determine where gaps lie. He also noted the lack of specialized training for providers working with the population and encouraged members of the LGBTQIA+ community to never “negotiate who you are” when seeking care.

“We all need to be more self-aware and a bit more patient,” said Smith. “Being patient to explain those things to people who may not understand. There’s a give and take on both sides that can get us to a better place.”

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Last Updated: June 28, 2023
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