On Monday, I attended the Dean’s Speaker Series with Brigadier General Tammy Smith, a cross-collaborative event co-sponsored by Veterans at Haas, Q@Haas, and Women in Leadership (WIL). In August 2012, Army Reserve officer Tammy Smith was promoted to the position of Brigadier General and became the first gay general openly serving in the military.
As a woman, LGBTQ member, and U.S. soldier, General Smith provides a multi-faceted perspective on identity and forces us to look beyond preconceived notions of gender and societal roles. By staying true to her core values, General Tammy Smith defies stereotypes and proves herself to be a strong, authentic, and influential female leader in a male-dominated industry and an advocate for her moral beliefs in a bureaucratic and rigid infrastructure.
Having grown up in Oakland, Oregon, General Smith joined the military as a means to escape her small town and experience more from life. She found passion and a purpose in the military and loved being able to serve her country. Yet throughout most of her service, there was a law and policy in place commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). Before its repeal in 2011, DADT stated that any openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons were barred from military service. As a result, General Smith was forced to be silent and hide her personal life. Under her circumstances, she lived in fear that someone would find out and leak her sexual orientation, and felt pressure from maintaining constant awareness of her actions.
General Smith learned to cope by compartmentalizing her life and for years, she was okay with marginalizing herself to be able to serve. However, in 2009, after over twenty years of service and four years of dating her girlfriend, now wife, Tracey Hepner, she could not end the internal conflict between her moral and institutional values and filed paperwork for her retirement. Throughout her entire career thus far, gays were not allowed to be in the military. Her decision to retire was extremely difficult because although she loved being a soldier and an active member of the army, continuing to live two compartmentalized lives and keeping her wife a secret was too emotionally draining. She had given up hope that DADT would change and that gays would be openly accepted in the military.
General Smith’s viewpoint changed in 2010 when she attended a senior officer’s speech, where he proclaimed that no officer should feel like that their personal integrity is being jeopardized. General Smith found hope and rescinded her retirement.
On September 20, 2011, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed and General Smith felt an immense sense of relief. When Smith found out about her promotion in May 2012 from Army Reserve officer to Brigadier General, she felt that not coming out would be a disservice to those fighting so hard for the repeal. After twenty-five years of hiding, General Smith was afraid and proclaimed she had internalized homophobia; she worried about all the repercussions even though she knew that announcing Tracey as her wife was the right thing to do. Smith told her boss and the military before the promotion that she was planning on coming out, and the military reacted very positively and gave her unparalleled support. On August 10, 2012, Tammy Smith was promoted to Brigadier General and her wife pinned the star onto her uniform.
While General Smith does not believe herself to be an activist, she does see herself as an advocate. She argues that visibility is the first step towards advocacy. By being present, one is already breaking stereotypes.
General Smith feels that since coming out, she has become a more comfortable and effective leader. As a female leader, Smith argues she has to be extremely competent and command with a strong presence. In 2012, less than 7 percent of the General office force in the Army were women. However, instead of focusing on the current demographics and stereotypes about women leaders, General Smith focused on doing the best she could at her job and always taking care of her soldiers. With regards to her leadership style, General Smith leads with a collaborative approach and the underlying belief that everyone can bring something to the table; as good of an idea can come from someone who is junior than someone who is senior. She advises us not to judge an idea from who it came from but rather on the quality of the idea.
Ultimately, General Tammy Smith serves as a role model not because she is gay or a woman, but because she upholds her personal integrity and moral values, and focuses on doing her best and advancing her career despite stereotype threats and apparent obstacles. General Smith epitomizes the Haas core values of “Question the Status Quo,” in that she refuses to let stereotypes define her and “Beyond Yourself” because she puts her dedication to serving her country above all else. As students about to enter the workforce, where many of us will hold influential leadership positions, it is imperative that we learn from genuine leaders like General Tammy Smith the importance of being authentic, leveraging from your peers’ ideas, and believing in yourself, your beliefs, and your abilities regardless of the surrounding circumstances.