HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - The number of LGBTQ+ community members joining the United States military is growing. News 3 sat down with a few of them to discuss the reality of being LGBTQ+ in the military, both then and now.
"When you wake up in the morning and you look at yourself and you just hate yourself, it's really hard to move forward in the military and in life," said Sgt. Weslyn Peterson, a combat medic specialist and openly transgender woman stationed at Fort Lee.
Peterson joined the United States Military in 2016, and like many others, spent years hiding her true identity.
Culinary Specialist First Class Phillip Harrison had a similar experience.
"When I joined in 2004, it was very hush-hush," Harrison said.
Harrison is currently stationed at Naval Station Norfolk. He told News 3 he joined the military during the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"It was like I couldn't be myself, I was forced to just go to work and come home," he explained. "I couldn't find friends or even a relationship at the time because they wouldn't let me be who I wanted to be."
As a gay man, Harrison was forced to choose between a career or living his truth.
"If I make a mistake, you can out me and then I'm out of the military," he explained.
During WWII and the 1940s, being gay was considered a mental illness, disqualifying military candidates.
Then in 1982, Harrison says, "It was actually criminalized for same-sex couples to be in the military and it was a dishonorable discharge."
And in 1993, former president Bill Clinton enacted the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, allowing closeted LGBTQ+ members to serve, but they would be discharged for disclosing it.
Harrison remembers working twice as hard to prove he is more than his sexuality.
"If I mess up, you judge me accordingly, but you don't judge me over my lifestyle. I'm a US Navy Sailor like you are," he said.
Harrison says he remembers the exact moment in 2011 when the policy that kept him hidden was rescinded and finally set him free.
"My chief came [to me] and she said 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was rescinded," he recalls. "I think I ran out the hallways screaming. I was so happy. It was a very joyous occasion."
"We could be who we wanted to be and serve our country that we love openly. It was a huge moment for us," he added.
But for transgender service members like Peterson, that moment didn't come until nearly 10 years later.
"Between 2019 and 2021, you could not join the service as a transgender person or transition while in service," she explained.
The soldier says this had an impact on both her career and mental health, saying "I was very depressed. I was spiraling."
It wasn't until January 2021, when President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing those who don’t identify with their sex assigned at birth to enlist, that the medical combat specialist could truly express herself.
"I've known I was transgender since I was 10 or 11 years old," she explained. "I didn't tell anyone about my gender identity issues, not even my wife, I told nobody until after January 2021. I didn't tell a soul."
Now, Peterson can be herself.
"It's weird to say I never felt like myself and now I feel normal. The easiest way to explain it is that I felt like ants were crawling on me my entire life and all of a sudden I just don't feel that way," she explained. "I feel great. I feel like me."
While Peterson says she's found support in her fellow soldiers, Harrison says there's still work to do.
"I believe we still have a long way to go with just how people's attitudes are," he said. "We need to think of everyone as a Sailor first. Actually, as a human first, then a Sailor, and to acknowledge that [we] have different cultures and backgrounds — it makes us better, then it will make us a stronger military."
Harrison is also the diversity committee coordinator at Naval Station Norfolk,and is hoping to create an LGBTQ+ support group as more community members join the force.
He says support groups are proven to be effective and resourceful.
"It's a place for you to kind of get away and recharge with your fellow shipmates that are in your group," he said.
As for Peterson, she's reclassing from medic to electromagnetic spectrum manager, with plans to undergo gender-affirming surgery and grow out her hair.
"If people are medically ready and capable of joining the military to serve, let them serve their country," she said.