It’s not about the flag: a commentary on Pride

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Karmyn Grabner-Dyson and Airman 1st Class Michelle Ferrari

My name is Karmyn Grabner-Dyson and I am a master sergeant in the United States Air Force, a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an advocate for human rights. I made it my mission to stand up for those who need support and a voice in the military, but that wouldn’t have been possible had I not struggled or faced challenges of my own.

Since childhood, through enlistment, and in my career, I faced challenges. I take pride in my journey, my identity, and my achievements. It’s disheartening to witness the negative stigma surrounding the pride flag. It’s not about the flag, but about serving my country as an equal.

Being raised in a religious and sheltered environment, my immediate family did not support me. During my childhood, I struggled with shame, isolation, and simply being accepted for being my authentic self. As a kid, I went into severe depression and struggled with thoughts of ending my life, and not being worthy of love.

I understand now that they had to grieve the life they had dreamed for me, but I had different plans for my own life. Thankfully I had my stepdad, his wife, and my aunt who showed me unconditional love which helped me grow into the person I am today.

When I came out during middle school, I remember my stepdad saying “Oh, thank God!” He was excited and relieved at the same time because it brought us closer. I confided in him and he became my rock through many challenges. When I wanted to join the military, he was extremely supportive of that decision, and continued to be my biggest supporter.

When I was 13 years old, my school arranged a trip to tour a Navy installation and my eyes lit up. Seeing the coolest parts of their mission, the life I could have, and the feeling of being a part of something bigger than I was just blew my mind. From that day on, I held on to the dream of joining the military.

In high school, I participated in the Navy Junior Rerseve Officers Training Corps program and was fixated on joining the Navy or Marines. I am not a strong swimmer and after watching documentaries about living on an aircraft carrier, I decided it wasn’t the best idea for me. Soon after opening myself up to other opportunities, an Air Force Recruiter came into our JROTC class, had donuts, and sold me on stopping by his office. The week I turned 17 I was in his office gearing up to join.

I knew that joining the military as a gay female would present its challenges, and that started with basic training. “‘Are you into the girls inside your dorm?’,” said one of the trainees. “‘Because there has to be someone here you like’.”

I didn’t know how to process these comments. They believed I might pursue another female in the dorm which only added to my paranoia. I questioned whether or not I even belonged there. I was there for the same reason as everyone else and I had struggles like everyone else. The adversity I faced in my childhood helped prepare me for what was to come, I just had to remain focused. I held on to the fact that BMT was only temporary and that I could overcome this.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell was in place when I enlisted in the military in 2011, which blocked certain rights for LGBTQIA+ people. Soon after joining, there was news of DADT being repealed. Although I would like to claim that I felt relieved and optimistic at the time, the truth is, I was nervous.

I kept thinking I still wouldn’t be able to be my authentic self because I would encounter opposition. In actuality, I knew that not everyone would embrace me for who I was. I faced resistance, and that was terrifying. All of a sudden, the 20-year road to retirement seemed longer and lonelier.

My decision to pursue a career in security forces presented its own set of obstacles that I had to overcome. During my initial assignment, I noticed there was still a perception and stigma attached to the LGBTQIA+ community. I did my best to fit in but I found myself struggling mentally as I tried to conform to a false identity.

For many of my friends, it was like “coming out” all over again. Some leaders I know are still afraid to live their truth due to the hardships they faced for most of their careers. Most of us tried to keep our heads down, but I worked twice as hard to prove my worth and gain acceptance.

Over time, I found my community. I found friends, peers, and NCOs who accepted me for who I was, and I am eternally grateful for them. It was refreshing to find people who accepted me for who I was.

I met my wife when I was a senior airman and we’ve been together for eight years. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for her continued support. She has supported me through all my endeavors, school, and hardships. Her parents have also been very supportive from the beginning. It was unexpected to feel cared for by people who at the time were not family. I am truly humbled by their unwavering love, acceptance, and support.

Before DADT, same-sex marriages did not receive equal treatment in terms of healthcare benefits or federal acknowledgment compared to heterosexual marriages.

Envision the struggle of not being able to provide your spouses and families with the necessary care or access to the installation; this long overdue initiative is something I deeply value.

I made it my mission to educate, advocate, and inspire people to be their authentic selves. Diversity is not just a buzzword, it's imperative to American ideals. What resonates with me the most, is that the USA is a giant melting pot that embraces diversity and offers opportunities for a fresh start. While change can be intimidating, exploring various cultures and unifying different backgrounds can enrich your life. The Air Force acknowledges that our strength lies in our diversity. To me, that is the American dream.

The Air Force has made significant progress in prioritizing equality. We are the first military branch to incorporate gender equality into its policies, and I had the amazing opportunity to help drive this initiative forward.

I was among the initial 40 individuals who integrated Women, Peace and Security into the Air Force by assisting the implementation of a new Special Experience Identifier. The SEIs provide the minimum training requirements and on-the-job training that are standardized to ensure successful performance of duties.

In security forces, there was a lack of properly fitted gear for women, and overall men weren’t given sufficient opportunities to be more involved with their children after birth. Women, Peace and Security is not exclusively for women; it is inclusive for all to ensure all perspectives are considered in order to better strategically plan. It’s about actively seeking opportunities to promote fairness and equality for all individuals.

Since then, I’ve advocated as a Master Resiliency Trainer, a Diversity Equity Inclusion and volunteer victim advocate, Sexual Assault Prevention Response and suicide prevention facititator.

I joined to protect the rights and freedoms we all have. I believe in treating everyone with respect. We’re all in this thing called life, so let’s do it together.

Every Pride Month, I think about community, culture, and what it means to all of us. I enlisted to defend the rights and freedoms we are all granted. Pride Month isn't just about the flag. I am not a label and I am not a rainbow-colored flag. It took me a long time to get past my challenges and to a place where I am proud of who I am. Challenges will come and go in your life, but there is a lot to be PRIDEful about, especially just being you.

Military One Source: LGBTQ in the Military | Military OneSource
American Veterans for Equal Rights Home - American Veterans for Equal Rights. We Are You! ( 
Palm Center Palm Center - independent, non-partisan research institute ( 
Transgender American Veterans Association Transgender American Veterans Association ( 

There are valuable resources within the Air Force that helped me, mental health services, pride committees, the wing prevention office, and chaplains.

Editor’s note: This commentary was edited by Airman 1st Class Michelle Ferrari and reflects the author, MSgt. Karmyn Dyson's personal experiences. Her experience does not necessarily reflect any other individual’s experiences, which can vary, including past experiences, family history, AFSC, or other life circumstances. We still encourage everyone to take care of themselves so that they have the opportunity to lead a happy, successful Air Force life.