By raising flags and healing wounds, Utah Pride Center to honor LGBTQ+ veterans on Veterans Day

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Courtesy of Utah Pride Center

(ABC4) – When Tisha Olsen was 12 years old, she approached her father, a former Marine who had served for more than 30 years in the military, and told him she had her entire life planned out.

She was going to enlist in the Marines at age 17, serve until she was 37, and die at 38.

“There was no such thing as life after the Corps,” she explains to ABC4.com.

Olsen lived up to part of the plan. She did enlist in the Marines and complete a successful 22-year career in the service. However, now at 56-years-young, as she puts it, she did not die at 38 and ultimately found a life after the military.

What Olsen didn’t tell her father as a 12-year-old was that she had been struggling with her gender identity since she was 6. At the time, she was living as a boy.

“I knew something was different about me, but I didn’t know what was different,” Olsen explains of her childhood. “My friends would look at look at girls and say, ‘Ooh, cooties!’ And I was looking at them and saying, ‘God, I wonder how that dress would look on me’ or ‘How come I can’t wear pretty things like that?’”

Despite this internal conflict, Olsen enlisted in the Corps while struggling with what Veterans Affairs would later call gender dysphoria. Throughout her entire time in the Marines, Olsen was forced to conceal her feelings and budding transsexuality for fear of serious repercussions while the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy on homosexuality and other differing orientations and gender identities were in place.

“If I would have been outed with one minute left before I got my 20-year retirement, I would have lost everything,” she says. “I would have lost my pension, I would have lost my rank, I would have been discharged from the Marine Corps with a dishonorable discharge. All because I was transgender.”

Things have gotten better since Olsen’s retirement, with an honorable discharge, from the armed forces. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was dissolved in Sept. 2011, ending the ban on openly gay or other members of the LGBTQ+ community from serving in the military. Olsen has had the need to conceal herself lifted as well, undergoing her transition and beginning life as a woman not too long ago. She still, however, proudly celebrates her time in the Corps, illustrated by the many Siemper Fi tattoos on her arms.

The Utah Pride Center also wishes to celebrate the sacrifice that Olsen, and all veterans, especially members of the LGBTQ+ community, have made in their service on Veterans Day. On Thursday, the Pride Center will hold its second annual flag-raising ceremony, marking the occasion also hoisting an all-inclusive banner in partnership with the Veterans Affairs Office of Utah.

According to the center’s Director of Adult Programs, Deb Hall, some of the participants who receive counseling or assistance at the Pride Center share a similar story to Olsen’s.

“Some people want to talk about it, and some people don’t, it’s still very uncomfortable,” Hall says of the LGBTQ+ veterans that meet at the Pride Center. “For a lot of transgender veterans, they’re not always accepted, even by other military personnel and it’s what made the group very successful here because they had a safe place to meet and to talk and to gather.”

Still, it says something about how patriotic the veterans who have since come out – or not – as members of the LGBTQ+ community are, Hall says. Despite knowing the risks if they were exposed at the time, many still joined and served in all branches of the military.

There’s more than you’d think. Hall notes that the VA has recently begun to track sexual orientation and gender identity and has found more than 134,000 transgender veterans. That number is likely underreported, she adds.

Of course, there are likely still some difficult emotions and feelings that many of those veterans wrestle with. Hall hopes that Thursday’s gesture, as small as she admits it may be, can be an act not only of appreciation and acknowledgment but also, healing.

“Our veterans have suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers, they’ve suffered at the hands of the military personnel, so there’s a lot of wounds that need to be healed,” Hall says. “This is this is just a way to honor and hopefully close some of those wounds.”

As for Olsen, who is set to speak at the flag-raising, she is appreciative of the gesture and the all-inclusive flag but makes it clear, there’s no flag as important to her as the Stars and Stripes.

“What isn’t there and what’s not to love about this country? I mean this country is wonderful, even though we have the issues that we’re going through,” Olsen explains. “We have an issue with black-and-white thinking, we have an issue with thinking that this world is binary when God knows it’s not, but we’re also in a country where we can sit here and say what we say how we feel.”

She’s felt that way for a long time, even before greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community was reached. Olsen recalls a time a few years ago, she was asked by a young woman, “Why do you love this country that hates you so much?”

Her response, at the time, was powerful.

“This country loves me, it just may not know it yet.”

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