Speaking at a virtual roundtable on Wednesday morning, Leah Lauderback, director of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for the US Space Force, was explaining the name of a new project she’s leading—one that isn’t exactly about the satellites or spy stuff that make up her main job. It’s called LIT, for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning Initiative Team. Their vision, she said, is “to be the light that illuminates the path toward change, acceptance, and equality for all of those that came before us and those that will come after us.”
In April, Air Force officials announced that they had created both the LIT and the Indigenous Nations Equality Team (INET) as part of their larger Barrier Analysis Working Group. In case you needed another acronym, that’s BAWG, coincidentally pronounced like the noun that means “a swampy area” and the verb that means “to become impeded or stuck.” The teams are meant to support those who may have felt alone and unheard in the past, and to help them chart a better path through their military careers. In addition to the two new teams, five others already represent women, people with disabilities, and Black, Hispanic, and Pacific islander/Asian American service members.
Lauderback and Colonel Terrence Adams, head of INET, used the roundtable to publicly lay out their missions. Right now, her group is in a sort of R&D phase, Lauderback said; they want to find out if LGBTQ service members feel they are able to serve openly, without fear, and in a welcoming environment. Those are good questions, especially on the cusp of Pride Month, and 10 years after the Department of Defense’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy got kicked to the curb.
Under that outdated mandate, lesbian, gay and bisexual people could don uniforms but couldn’t be open about their sexual orientation, lest they be booted from service. Trans people, meanwhile, have been whiplashed between policies governing whether they can serve at all. Banned starting in the 1960s, trans people were then allowed to serve beginning in 2016. During the Trump administration, a ban went back into effect. President Joe Biden recently reversed that policy, a move that advocates hailed as a step forward for inclusion and equity.
“We’re happy to see open service restored, ending a damaging form of systemic discrimination and enabling greater opportunities for those willing and able to serve in uniform,” says Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.
Still, the situation for LGBTQ+ people in the military isn’t all parades, and that includes within the Space Force, the newest branch of the armed services. It’s housed under the Department of the Air Force, and was established in 2019 to deal with military assets in space, like GPS satellites and missile-warning systems.
As a major general assigned to the Space Force, Lauderback is LIT’s senior champion, a high-up who can make things heard. “To make this a more inclusive force, one, you need to change culture,” she said. “And in that case, really, there’s hearts and minds that you need to change. But secondly, you have to change policy. We can’t expect a diverse and inclusive workforce if we just want that to happen at a grassroots level.” Lauderback sees these efforts—and those of the other BAWG teams—as national security necessities. “The military is an all-volunteer force,” she said. “We need to recruit the best and the brightest and those that are passionate to serve. We need a diverse workforce, one that resembles the American public, and creating an inclusive environment helps to ensure that we retain that talent.”
But that was not always the attitude at the Department of Defense, as Lauderback knows well. She entered the Air Force the same year “Don’t ask, don’t tell” went into effect. “I have firsthand knowledge of what it means to work in a noninclusive environment, and I would describe it as personally upsetting, challenging, and demeaning at times,” she said. “I put my desire to serve the nation above my desire to live a normal life.”
Years later, when then president Barack Obama repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Lauderback wasted no time. “There was no way I was going to hide at that point,” she said earlier this month at a storytelling event hosted by the Air Force. “Whoever asked, I was going to tell.” The removal of the policy gave her confidence because it didn’t technically matter if the listener was on board with her identity. “Somebody had my back if, in fact, somebody disagreed or discriminated against me,” she continued.
But those on-paper policies haven’t played out so simply over the past decade. In a 2020 report in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, researchers from the Department of Defense-funded Military Acceptance Project analyzed the results of 37 in-depth interviews with personnel on bases worldwide. “Half of participants feared that the military environment, at both the institutional and interpersonal level, is not yet LGBT-inclusive,” the authors wrote.
Another study from the project, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, surveyed a larger group and found that about 56 percent of straight, cisgender people in the service experience sexual harassment. But about 80 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members do, as do about 84 percent of transgender people.
Lauderback said she hadn’t fully realized the challenges her LGBTQ colleagues were facing, since her experience with coming out—and being out—had gone smoothly. But as she mentored others about their own coming out, she realized something: “They were still scared to,” she said. And she started thinking, “Maybe this isn’t as good for everybody as it has been for me. And so I wanted to see if there was a need for the group.” Last fall, she began probing, and this spring, LIT went live.
INET was born around the same time. “We want all airmen and guardians to feel a sense of belonging,” says Adams. “And that takes work.”
Some of the hardest work LIT will face is addressing the concerns of its disparate members. “They are very different groups, and we think of them as a homogenous group,” says Carl Castro of the University of Southern California, who helped lead the Military Acceptance Project. “In the main, LGB service members are doing pretty good,” Castro continues. “They could do better, but they’re not doing that bad.” Things are more difficult, and different, for trans people, who, for instance, currently need permission from a commander to start transitioning, says Castro.
The military has a vested interest in making all of those groups feel welcome. “Their main priority is readiness, and the readiness of the military to act in any moment,” says the University of Southern California’s Jeremy Goldbach, also a Military Acceptance Project leader. “And when you have communities that experience being left out, being marginalized, being treated differently, it makes it difficult for people to feel like they’re able to operate in a unit.”
LGBTQ service members specifically don’t want to be treated differently. According to his research, Goldbach says, “their measure of equity was: ‘Judge me on the job I do.’” Or, he says, people told him: “The reason I feel supported in my unit is because it’s a nonissue.”
Right now, the LIT group is still in its early stages, and it is narrowing down which problems they will address. But Lauderback pointed out some low-hanging fruit. One task, she said, is to educate military medical professionals, so that if, for instance, an airman or guardian’s teenager is questioning their gender identity, the clinician is trained in how to help them. “In some cases, our providers and technicians just might be unfamiliar with those unique LGBTQ experiences,” she said.
As another example, when a gay man goes to a military doctor for medication that can help prevent the transmission of HIV, he has to fill out a form that IDs him as high-risk—that kind of stigmatization could discourage people from seeking care. “This airman is doing the right things, he’s being responsible, and we want to make him feel good about that, as opposed to making him feel demeaned,” said Lauderback. “Let’s just change the checklist. That’s all that it is.”
Then there is the gendered language that appears in names like the “Mothers of Preschoolers” group or the “Dad 101” course. Program leaders could, instead, adopt language that helps all parents, in any sort of family configuration, feel welcome. It’s stuff that people who haven’t experienced that sort of exclusion might not think of, but bringing together those who have can highlight potential problems for leadership. Lauderback cited how this has worked for the Women’s Initiatives Team on its Facebook page. “Somebody will post their issue, and then 30 people will join in, or 50 people will join in, no matter what the topic is,” she says. “And so they have broken through.”
Goldbach points out that when a group like LIT is given a real voice in a hierarchical system like the military’s, policy and practice can shift effectively. “When they make a decision, it is done,” he says. “The whole system changes. Because that’s the design.” And someone high up in the hierarchy often needs to serve as that voice. “That tells you how seriously they’re taking it, when they have somebody at that level step into that role,” he says, referring to Lauderback’s position.
Pick, of the Trevor Project, also lauds the group. "The creation of the LGBTQ Initiative Team is a welcome development that affirms the Air Force’s recognition that strength comes from diversity,” she says. “From addressing medical disparities to overcoming barriers to career opportunities and legacies of discriminatory policies, it is critical that the Air Force confront the challenges facing LGBTQ service members with the same rigor and determination as they do any mission.”
And while the exact details of LIT’s plans are still under development, their acronym, which they came to only after considerable deliberation, speaks to their bright hopes. “Sometimes you need to light a fire to get things changed,” Lauderback said. “Or you want to illuminate the future. And staying lit means that we plan to not burn out.”