This Valentine's Day, Air Force Colonel Ginger Wallace will do something different: Openly celebrate her relationship with her partner of 10 years, Kathy Knopf, thanks to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
"For the past few years, we have celebrated with really good friends in Charlottesville, Virginia," Wallace told Yahoo! Shine in an interview. "This year we'll go out to dinner to celebrate. I got Kathy a promotion ceremony gift that I think is going to be Christmas and Valentine's Day combined-at least that's what she tells me it should be." (The big gift? Diamond earrings.)
Before the repeal, Wallace said, she always felt her career as an intelligence officer could be over if her sexual orientation became known. "I could never talk about Kathy. I didn't talk about Kathy," she said. "She was always on my security clearance, but not as who she really was."
In January, Wallace attended President Obama's State of the Union speech as a special guest of the first lady, representing thousands of gay and lesbian service members and veterans who have fought for our country. She took the time to talk to Yahoo! Shine recently about her experience, her relationship, and how this year is finally different.
Shine: What was it like for you and Kathy as a couple before the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?
Colonel Wallace: The obvious thing was that I, at any moment, could lose my job. When you serve in the military and you chose it as a career, it's really more that you could lose the life that you love. Being in the military is not just a job-when you've done if for twenty one years as I have-it's a way of life. That was my biggest fear. Kathy's biggest fear was that she could be the reason that my career ended. As time went on, I got to the point where you are just so tired of trying to not be found out that I became less concerned and she became more concerned.
Shine: How did you and Kathy meet?
Colonel Wallace: We met through a mutual friend about three weeks after September 11th. Kathy was already in the Washington D.C. area working and I was up here on duty. We had a mutual friend who thought we would be great together. That was September 30, 2001.
Shine: Your promotion ceremony this past December marked the first time a same-sex partner has taken an active role in this particular military event, can you describe how that felt for you?
Colonel Wallace: Not only did Kathy participate, she was recognized for who she is in my life. That could not have happened before without dire consequences. She sat exactly where a spouse or significant other would sit. I had to make my dad move because he sat down in her seat and I said "Dad, you've got to move down one, that's Kathy's seat." At the end, she was the last person that I thanked for exactly who she is in my life and that was the big deal for me-I was able to recognize her for the role she's played in my success and I was able to thank her for her sacrifice which has obviously been just as much as any other spouse or significant other.
Shine: Has it been difficult for Kathy to not publicly show her support?
Colonel Wallace: The hard part for her was it was just this black cloud that hung over us all the time. It was something that you constantly thought about and devoted a lot of time and energy to. It was difficult for her to not be able to openly talk about the fact that she has a military partner. She got asked questions all the time and it was just something that she couldn't talk about. At her work (as an analyst for the government) she could be as open as anyone else, but because of me, she couldn't be. That was really hard for her.
Shine: What was it like to watch the State of the Union speech live from the first lady's box?
Colonel Wallace: It was just surreal. I have never felt more honored or more humbled to represent so many thousands of gay and lesbian men and women who serve. It was just incredible.
Shine: Did you ever think you would see that day come?
Colonel Wallace: No. Not in a million years. There was a period when I didn't think I would see the end of repeal. There were those really dark days in December-that's when I thought: "that's it." It's been killed and I won't see it while I'm on active duty. And then basically overnight it was resurrected by some key members of Congress as a separate bill pulled out of the overall defense bill and it happened. And then finally for September 20, 2011 to finally come-it was the biggest day of my career thus far. No doubt.
Shine: You are leaving for Afghanistan late spring, how will this be different than some of the other deployments you have been on?
Colonel Wallace: Similar to Iraq, this is a combat zone so you do things a little bit differently before you go. I will put everything into place to make sure that Kathy is taken care of. That requires me to do a couple of extra things that other people don't have to do. For people that are married, if something were to happen to me, the system automatically kicks in that ensures the spouse is taken care of. For me, I will take a couple of extra steps: I have a will that spells out what happens. I will take it one step further and write a letter that outlines exactly what I expect the Air Force to do for Kathy. And then I just have to rely on friends and family members to ensure that she would get the flag at the funeral and that the Air Force takes care of her as much as they can within the confines of the laws that exist.
Shine: Like anyone, this must be tough to be apart from the person you love. How do you deal with this as a couple?
Colonel Wallace: You communicate as much as you can. I should be able to shoot her an email every day, unless I let her know that I am going to be out somewhere and not to expect to hear from me, which is what I did in Iraq. You have to adapt just like everyone else. We have done it before and we will manage. It's better since the repeal because it's out there now, so I feel confident that my friends and family will make sure she's taken care of, and I feel confident that the military will ensure that I get here if I need to be here.
Shine: How have things changed personally for you since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been repealed?
Colonel Wallace: After living your life for a certain way for so long, I feel about 100 pounds lighter. At the State of the Union, I had a senior military officer tell me that I was brave. And I thought to myself: "Ellen (DeGeneres) was brave fifteen years ago in 1997, I am just tired and exhausted." That has been the biggest change for me: I am not tired in that mentally, emotionally, and physically draining way that I was before. I can now devote every single ounce of my energy to my work that I love.
Shine: We have come a long way, but what more needs to be done?
Colonel Wallace: Colonel Wallace: While I would not normally voice my opinion on anything that is remotely political, in this case I think it is a safe to say that I hope the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned. I know my role as a member of the military is normally not to speak out on these issues, but I think that people are pretty much OK with my voicing my opinion here. I think it is the next step if we're ever going to achieve equality.
I hope that repeal was another example for young kids struggling with their sexuality of things really getting better. It's not great yet, but it's better. And I have faith that it will continue to get better.
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