WASHINGTON — Army reserve officer Tammy Smith calls her recent promotion to brigadier general exciting and humbling, saying it gives her a chance to be a leader in advancing Army values and excellence.
What she glosses over is that along with the promotion she is also publicly acknowledging her sexuality for the first time, making her the first general officer to come out as gay while still serving. It comes less than a year after the end of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
“All of those facts are irrelevant,” she said. “I don’t think I need to be focused on that. What is relevant is upholding Army values and the responsibility this carries.”
But Smith’s pinning ceremony on Friday marks an important milestone for gay rights advocates, giving the movement its most senior public military figure. She has already been assigned as deputy chief at the Office of the Chief at the Army Reserve, and spent much of 2011 serving in Afghanistan.
Stars and Stripes interviewed Smith last summer before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal was finalized. Speaking under a pseudonym, she said she had no plans to come out to her colleagues, but was looking forward to the relief of knowing that her career wouldn’t be threatened if she was found out.
“Finally my partner and I will be able to go out and have drinks together without worrying,” she said then.
A year later, Smith, 49, said she is still more focused on the work ahead than the significance of her personal life. But her wife, Tracey Hepner, said the last year has been a dramatic transformation for both of them.
“The support we’ve received has been amazing,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised that people were so accepting, but in some cases it has been even celebratory. It’s like nothing has really changed for us, and yet everything has changed.”
Smith’s wife is much more of an activist than she is. Hepner co-founded the Military Partners and Families Coalition, a key voice in the debate over benefits and military programs for same-sex partners.
Friday’s private promotion ceremony for Smith wasn’t the first that Hepner has attended, but it was the first where the pair didn’t have to hide any details of their relationship. The pair have been together for more than a decade.
Advocates noted that Smith is not the first gay general officer, just the first who is able to serve without hiding that fact for fear of her career.
“It is a great day for our military and for our nation when this courageous leader is finally able to recognize her wife for her support and sacrifice in the same way that all military families should be recognized for their service to our country,” said Sue Fulton, an Army veteran and a member of the OutServe board of directors.
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis called Smith a role model for all senior enlisted troops and officers.
“[She] made history today, not only as an exemplary servicemember who renders outstanding service to our nation with integrity and honor, but as a proud lesbian acknowledging the tremendous sacrifice her family makes in order for her to serve and advance,” he said.
For her part, Smith downplayed any talk about her place in history.
“For me, the story is about the promotion and the opportunities it brings,” she said.