Airman relieved others can ask and tell

  • Published
  • By Lori Dean

All Airmen have a story of challenges and resiliency. Each has a story of mentors and rivals. Tech. Sgt. Robert Kelly is no different.

The Alabama native grew up alongside his older brother on his grandparent’s 19 acres of land. His father served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force while his mother was forced to live in a VA hospital following a car accident when Kelly was three.  

The brothers attended Catholic school and spent afternoons and weekends digging pipelines and installing power poles by hand on his grandparent’s property outside of Mobile. Kelly learned from his grandparents that women stereotypically worked inside the home, doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning, and men worked outside the house, doing the farming, yard work, and fixing machinery.

From the age of seven, Kelly knew something that he didn’t share with his family or friends: that he was gay.

“You learn to play the game so that no one knows,” Kelly said. That game lasted decades.

His family was outraged when he dated a black girl in high school. Not because he was dating a female (they didn’t know he was gay), but it was Kelly’s experience that in Alabama interracial dating is not always accepted, even today. It was obvious his family had an old fashion mindset, so the thought of coming out never seemed appropriate. “Growing up in rural Alabama, the perception was often that gay people were bad, going to hell, or simply shouldn’t exist,” Kelly said. “It was easier to date a black girl than admit I was gay.”

Kelly joined the Air Force in 2000 after not being accepted to his first college of choice. He wanted to travel, buy his own vehicle, and complete college, so he followed in his father’s military footsteps to help conquer all three.

When he joined the military, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was in full effect. The 1993 law barred lesbians, gays and bisexuals from serving in the U.S. military if they acknowledged their sexual orientation. Kelly continued playing the game, and in 2003, married a woman. The marriage lasted about four years, but he continued playing the game. Co-workers continued asking if he was gay, not because it bothered them, but they were genuinely curious.

It wasn’t until the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell went into effect in 2011 that Kelly was finally allowed to let his guard down, allowing him to serve openly. At the age of 29, he was finally able to quit playing the game and feel more comfortable with who he really was: an openly gay man.

While this caused a handful of challenges, Kelly has learned that most people are honestly more curious than anything else and he enjoys educating people when asked questions. One co-worker believed that all gay men were pedophiles and refused to invite him to his house because he had a young daughter. It wasn’t until after an honest, open conversation that the two became friends.  

When Kelly first arrived at a duty station, his commander asked if he came with his wife or girlfriend. When he replied, “No ma’am, I am gay,” she immediately stopped the conversation, not knowing how to respond. When she confided in others, they all explained that Kelly, and anyone else in the LGBTQ community, should be treated with the same respect as anyone else. The military has always been made up of differing religions, races and nationalities. The commander realized that we have always had differing sexual orientations, too; the military is “one team, one fight,” regardless of those differences.

As is true for so many things throughout our society and military, acceptance is key. “The military has started to change with time, people are more accepting,” Kelly shared. “Every generation seems to be more accepting of differences. My grandparents had views on how things should be. My parents followed those values, but they were a little more accepting. And, I’m more accepting then all of them.

“The military is no different. As younger people enter, acceptance is more common. Some do a double take when I say I’m married to a man, some think I’m joking, but I believe it can be chalked up to how long I had to hide who I am. I think most people understand that even though I am gay, I am not much different from them.”

The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t just open the door for Kelly to be honest with himself and his colleagues. It opened the door for him to come out to his family. “My brother and cousins were terrific,” he explained. “My dad didn’t agree with it, but he told me he loved me regardless.”

Kelly continues to spend his energy with more meaningful “games,” having completed over 21 years of service to the Air Force, earning two degrees at the Community College of the Air Force, and he will be earning his bachelor’s degree later this year. He has godchildren and his friends know that he can be counted on for assistance for anything.

Most importantly, he can happily and openly share one important thing: He met his husband, Chris, in 2010 and married in 2016.

“As a society, we tend to push our personal views onto others. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what people’s opinions are of you and your life. As long as you are happy then it doesn’t matter what others think.”

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Harley’s Hope highlights Team Pope Airmen while providing a snapshot into their culture, stereotypes faced, and how their culture plays a role in their personal and professional lives.)