Updated: May 21, 2019
Sunday, May 5, 2019 was a special day for the Museum of the American Military Family, located in Tijeras, NM. The museum had recently acquired and renovated a few more rooms, which includes a performance and educational space. The MEPs, which stands for the Museum Education and Performance Space, will display a series of rotating exhibits.
The museum acquired the Albuquerque Military Entrance Processing Station sign when the military relocated its operations to another building. It is displayed in the performance space; and therefore, the MEPS at the museum has a multi-layered meaning.
When people enlist into the service, their first introduction to life in the service is going through the Military Entrance Processing Station, also known as the MEPS. This is where a new chapter in their story will start. Often, besides physical testing, there are a few other tests done to determine what job they will do in the service, so, now, not only will a MEPS facility be the start of their military story, but now the museum’s MEPS can be where people can tell not only their full story of service, but their family can also tell their stories.
In early May, the museum director Dr. Circe Olson Woessner and museum special projects manager Dr. Phil Pohl l worked right up until the last minute to get the MEPS set up with its first exhibit. There had been a grand re-opening of the museum in mid-April, and the other galleries had already had their showing. Now it was the performance space’s time to shine.
The exhibit chosen to hold the honor of being the first one in the MEPS was an expanded encore exhibit and recipient of the American Association for State and Local History’s 2018 Albert B. Cory prize. That exhibit was Inside Out: Memories From Inside the Closet. That exhibit also included the museum’s publication SHOUT! Sharing Our Truth.
The new, expanded exhibit is called Still Shouting! and is a collection of stories and art work of veterans and active service members who are LGBTQ+. Accompanying the artwork is a timeline of the history of LGBTQ+ in the military and how the U.S government and armed forces handled those who they considered to be in the LGBTQ+ community.
Still Shouting! is a collaboration between Department of Veterans Affairs, Sandia National Labs Pride Alliance, American Veterans for Equal Rights, Kirtland Air Force Base Gay-Straight Alliance and the museum.
To help commemorate this event, two guest speakers were invited to speak, either about their experience in while they served, or about their interactions with the LGBTQ+ community. Representing New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham was New Mexico Cabinet Secretary for Veterans Services was retired brigadier general Judy Griego, and also present was Bernalillo County Commissioner (District 5) Charlene Pyskoty. Members of AVER presented the colors during the brief opening ceremony.
The star of this exhibit is a closet containing uniforms tops, most turned inside out to represent those who had to serve while in the closet, but now are out, while one was right side out, which was created by a currently serving transgender airman. The closet is designed so that when a rope is pulled, the door opens, and the uniforms came out on display. Veterans from two VA medical centers, AVER, Sandia Labs, and KAFB Gay-Straight alliance used various media, like magazine clippings, art work, and even their own words to express their feelings and experiences about being LGBTQ+ while serving.
Veterans in El Paso and Albuquerque, working with Dr. Kyle Erwin contributed to the exhibit. In 2017, Dr. Erwin was doing his residency at the ABQ VA, where he worked with the LGBTQ+ group. With his assistance, the group produced about half a dozen shirts. When he transferred to El Paso, he presented the idea of this exhibit the groups in El Paso, and they contributed more shirts.
Before the ceremony, visitors wandered through the museum and expressed their admiration in how the museum has expanded, enjoying the new displays and the different topics each gallery covered. At the appointed time, we all gathered in the MEPS and awaited the opening ceremony. The AVER color guard had not only the US flag, but the New Mexico state flag, the MIA flag, and the LGBTQ+ and Transgender flags as well.
Dr. Woessner opened by sharing how this exhibit came to be, explaining the different components of the installation, and why she feels we need to keep the LGBTQ+ service members, veterans and even family members’ stories going.
She stated, “From its inception, our museum is all-inclusive and dedicated to present all aspects of life in and around military service. Through our anthology and this exhibit, we share with the public unique stories that haven’t often been told.”
Dr. Woessner presented both guest speakers with “Brat” pins honoring their ties to a military childhood. The first speaker was Secretary Griego, and she talked about her history as the child of a servicemember, her career in the Air Force as the first female General in the New Mexico National Guard. She then touched on how she had supported the LGBTQ+ community and how the Governor will not only support Servicemembers and Veterans in general, but her support of those in the LGBTQ+ community. She remarked, “The Governor and I fully support those in the LGBTQ+ community and their families, and in our eyes, [they] are veterans who need to be supported too.”
Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty spoke next, emphasizing her support for the LGBTQ community. Because she doesn’t like to stand behind a podium, she walked around as she delivered her speech, and her energy was catching. She said she was happy the museum was here and that it “would help people learn about and understand the richness of our military history.” She ended by saying, that the museum has added to the community and she’d like to explore how she and the other commissioners might help support it.
Once the speeches were over, it was time to unveil the main attraction: the closet.
Secretary Griego and AVER member Brandon Rodriguez grabbed the rope, opened the closet, and pulled all the uniform tops, with their stories and testimonies out front and center. It was very symbolic to have an active duty transgender airman pull open the closet. Once this was completed, group photos were taken and then everyone walked around looking at all the displays.
I have a few things in the exhibit myself, so there is a bit of bias on my part here. When Dr. Woessner was first putting this together, to get an idea of how long doing a top would take, she asked if I would be willing to take a uniform top and use artwork tell my story. Being as I was one of the first people she asked to do this, I took this kind of literally. I told my story, but I used my art to enhance the story and to make a stronger point about my feelings of who I was and where I am going.
Later, I was asked to contribute a story for the planned anthology, and I did. Because I had always told my story in the format of first person, I felt I needed to do something different. Knowing all the stories would be written in similar formats, I wrote my story in a dialogue between my male side and my female side. Because I chose to write it this way, it inspired the upcoming play, SHOUT! now in production in Richmond, VA, which will be debuting in July 2019. My story can be found in the first anthology, SHOUT! Sharing Our Truth.
This museum is a bit special to me. Not only do I get to take part of projects that deal with veteran issues, but I have donated objects to the museum from my time in the service-- items that may not have been donated until I passed away. So, this way, I have a vested interest in making sure the story of the museum is told—and-- my story gets to be told as well. Seeing the shirts and reading the stories, makes me proud of my fellow LGBTQ+ veterans.
The thing about being asked to contribute my story and artwork to this exhibit, is that it made me examine my life and put everything into perspective. I realize that some of the ways I was being treated by my fellow service members was not normal and saw how it affected my life.
Working with Dr. Woessner has helped me to learn new skills and to look at life in different ways than I am used to. She does not push hard; she asks if I want to take part in something and knowing that things may end up being seen by people I would never expect to meet, I say yes. It is at that point, she pushes, because what I gave her last time would have to be stepped up this time.
It is the same with her museum: she does not rest on her laurels, but looks ahead, knowing that she may have to do something out of her comfort zone. She cares deeply about everyone’s stories and works hard to see that everyone is treated equally. Like I said at the start, I am biased because when I am there, I point out my story to visitors as they walk around the museum.
With Still Shouting! dozens of previously unheard stories now have a voice.
This is a traveling exhibit. it was part of the Love Armor installation in Santa Fe last September, it was brought to Sandia Labs on National Coming Out Day last year, and in October, 2019, it will be going to El Paso.
Guest blogger - Theresa N. Duke