Mastering the Fear of Heights & Deep Water – Pride Speech 2023
These words are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Navy or the Department of Defense.
Growing up, I had two significant fears that consumed me. The first was heights, those towering places where I couldn’t trust myself to not let the slightest gust of wind send me tumbling down, erasing everything in a moment of fear and uncertainty. The second was deep water, an abyss that seemed to hold hidden dangers which were completely out of my control, where exhaustion or the unknown could swallow me whole.
But intertwined with those fears were two equally powerful emotions: shame and guilt. These emotions, while different in origin, left profound imprints on my journey. Shame, like the fear of deep water, had a way of enveloping me, making me feel exposed, vulnerable, and judged. Guilt, similar to the fear of heights, weighed heavy on me, making me question my abilities and worth.
Sisters, Brothers, and Everyone in between, good _____ ,
I am Commander Emily “Hawking” Shilling. I have served for 18 years and am a Naval Test Pilot with over 1700 hours and 60 combat missions in tactical carrier-based jets. I am the recipient of numerous military and civilian awards including Out & Equals Corporate Advocate of the Year, and the Order of Daedalians’ Award for distinguished airmanship during an emergency in which I safely landed a nearly uncontrollable aircraft saving it and all four aircrew.
As a naval aviator, I have dedicated my life to serving my country and facing challenges head-on. But my journey took an unexpected turn when I came out in April of 2019, when I finally admitted to the world that I was one of approximately 15,000 active and reserve transgender troops currently serving in our Military. The timing could not have been worse, as a ban on trans-inclusive service was reinstated just two days prior. I found myself alone, afraid, and with no idea of what my future would be. Was this the end? How would my family respond? How would my shipmates?
It was a moment of profound vulnerability and a hell of a lot of fear. Despite the timing, and perhaps because of it, my story is one of courage, triumph, resilience, and authenticity.
Since that pivotal moment, I found strength in service and have focused my energy on providing peer support, education, and advocacy to my fellow servicemembers. It is through this work that I have discovered firsthand the transformative power of authenticity, the strength that comes from embracing one’s true self and overcoming the challenges and fears that arise from facing shame and guilt head-on.
But before we talk about that, let’s go back to those primal fears. Heights and Deep Water.
When I was young, I never felt good enough. And although I succeeded at every endeavor, it wasn’t enough to calm my inner doubts. I knew I was transgender before I was 8, and although I didn’t have a word for the way I felt, I was quickly educated by the world that it was not something to talk about. It was a forbidden thought, an abominable desire to ever admit. So, I didn’t. I kept it quiet, I kept it safe from view. But out of this sprang new feelings. Feelings of shame for how I felt. Shame that I could be this way against all my society’s teachings and parental guidance. Guilt that because of these feelings, I could hurt and disappoint those I loved and looked up to. In 1993 I could not process these feelings, nor find a way of dealing with them. So, I did the only thing left to me to do and suppressed them. I ran away from them as fast as I could. These feelings of Shame and Guilt, of not being good enough and always the potential of disappointing people would become north stars in my life. Failure, although a real possibility, was never an option.
When it came time for college, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. But I couldn’t decide what kind to be. So, I took the only sensible option and chose the hardest thing I could find. Therefore, Aerospace it was. I buckled down and excelled, graduating in the top ranks of my class. But I still felt empty. As I sat in my cubicle at Ball Aerospace, working on the cutting-edge Kepler Space Telescope, I felt like a disappointment. I felt like I hadn’t done enough to make up for those awful feelings that I never shared.
I knew there had to be something I could do to balance the scales. To make the sins of how I felt, the shame and guilt, no longer matter, because I had done enough to repent.
This is where my two great fears come in. What could I do that would force me to face my fear of heights and my fear of deep water? In a eureka moment, I decided, of course, I’d become a badass Naval Aviator and show everyone that I was brave, capable, and worthy.
As a Naval Aviator, fear was my constant companion. And for a time, it was loud enough to quiet those other feelings that would not be voiced. Every time I strapped into the cockpit of a high-performance jet, the fear of heights would rear its head. The vast expanse of the sky stretched out before me, and the thought of plummeting from such heights was enough to send a chill down my spine. And whenever I launched from an Aircraft Carrier, the open ocean before me, with its unfathomable depths, instilled a primal fear within me. The thought of being swallowed by the vastness and depths of the sea nearly paralyzed me… every time.
Each time, I was forced to confront my fear. Each time, I still launched off the bow, and each time I proved to myself that I was brave and that I could be good enough. But in spite of the evidence, I still felt like a coward, still felt worthless. Ashamed of who I was and guilty I couldn’t force it out of existence through sheer will.
The emotions of shame and guilt loomed, growing stronger and louder as I ran faster and farther. Instead of accepting that I couldn’t outrun my identity, I doubled down. I applied and was accepted to Naval Test Pilot School. The same school that most Naval Astronauts went to. In my mind, I knew if I could succeed there, then I’d be at the top of my field, and shame and guilt would finally be so far below me, that I wouldn’t be able to hear it over the wind in my ears.
I graduated from Test Pilot School in 2014, but while I revealed in this newfound success, we saw the first cracks begin to appear in my armor. Here I was, at the pinnacle of aviation. There literally wasn’t anywhere else to go to feel more successful or more worthy. And I still felt ashamed. My mind was losing its north star. There wasn’t anything else to fight for, to work toward, to serve as a panacea to quiet my shame and guilt.
I grew Angry, Spiteful, and Fearful. Eventually, there wasn’t any more to give. I was at the top of my career, but the bottom of my self-worth. For years, I struggled with my identity as a transgender individual, fearful of what accepting it would mean. This fear shaped my experiences and while it fueled my need to succeed it hindered my ability to grow.
At my lowest moment, I finally found a connection between my fears and my identity. The fear of heights and deep water mirrored the fear of being true to myself, of embracing my transgender identity. The heights and depths became symbols of the internal struggle I faced as if they were physical manifestations of my journey.
Little did I know that these similarities would guide me toward a greater understanding of myself and others. It was through the process of overcoming my fears, both in the cockpit and in embracing my true self, that I discovered the transformative power of trusting and accepting myself.
The parallels between my fears of heights and deep water and the emotions of shame and guilt are undeniable. They intertwine, forming intricate knots that tighten around my sense of self. Just as the fear of heights threatened to topple me from precipitous ledges and the fear of deep water engulf me, shame and guilt threatened to throw me from lofty safety or drown me in their depths.
Yet, even amid the shadows a glimmer of hope emerged. I had the power to untangle these knots, to loosen the grip they had on my life. It began with the painful acknowledgment that I couldn’t run from them anymore. That my fears, both internal and external, were an integral part of my life, part of who I am. The only way forward was to face them head-on, accept them, and, hopefully, overcome them.
When I came out, my world collapsed. I lost friends, and I lost my marriage. The Navy stripped me of my flight clearance, and they began to out-process me; kick me out for being true to myself. All the things that shame and guilt were protecting me from were being realized. I had leaped off the cliff, landed in the cold, and was now being pulled under to the depths.
In my aviation career, I was trained to overcome the fear of heights and to trust in my skills and the engineering marvels that carried me through the skies. And while the fear of heights never truly left me, I developed the resilience to soar above it—to conquer the fear rather than be consumed by it. The aircraft became an extension of myself, a vessel through which I learned to conquer my insecurities and trust in my abilities.
I knew from overcoming my fears of height and deep water that fear, as overpowering as it may be, does not define us. I learned, through flight, that it is not the fact that we are scared that is important, but how we face that fear that matters.
During my crisis, what would become my rebirth, I realized that the same principles that applied to my journey as an aviator, applied to embracing myself. Just as I had to push past the fear of heights, I had to confront the fear of societal judgment and rejection. I had to trust in my inner compass, even when the path seemed treacherous and uncharted. It required courage—the courage to explore the depths of my soul, to dive into the unknown, and to embrace my truth.
Amazingly, as my world collapsed below me, I began the process of rebuilding. It started, just like in a squadron, with finding those comrades in arms, who could help lift me up. I discovered a vibrant community of transgender individuals serving in the military, just like me. I found new friends and a new family. Later, my parents would come around, and after some healing, would become a vital part of my support network. Most surprising though was the support I found in my fellow service members. With all but a few exceptions, they were committed to being my wingman, no matter where this flight took me.
As a fighter pilot, who always ran into the fight rather than away, I suspect it is only natural that I became a voice for change within the military, advocating for the rights and inclusion of transgender individuals. Through education and open dialogue, I seek to dismantle misconceptions and foster an environment of understanding and acceptance.
I fought tooth and nail to stay in the Navy, eventually being granted the right to serve. While I was transitioning, I was promoted to the rank of Commander, with merit. Then, with my transition behind me, I fought to regain my flight clearance, a task deemed impossible at the onset. I won that battle in Feb 2023, becoming the first Naval Aviator to do so and setting precedence for all those to come. Since then, I have become SPARTA’s President, charged with the well-being of and advocacy for over 2000 active and reserve transgender troops who are currently members. Additionally, I have taken on work with Out & Equal, a civilian non-profit that advocates corporate and federal workforces for inclusivity and LGBTQ+ rights.
Through these experiences, I came to understand that authenticity is not a weakness but a strength and the guilt and shame I felt were never mine to bear, only a reflection of a society still learning to accept and embrace diversity. As leaders, it is our duty to create an environment where individuals can thrive, unencumbered by the fear of judgment or discrimination. By embracing authenticity, we foster a culture of acceptance and empower others to bring their whole selves to the table.
In April 2019, I did something that went against the very principles I had used to define myself – I stopped running. I stopped trying to conquer the ‘unconquerable’, stopped attempting to balance the scales, and instead accepted that there was nothing to balance. At that moment, I faced the most profound fear I had ever known. Not heights, not deep water, but the fear of being true to myself. These moments of struggle and vulnerability have been some of the most significant learning experiences of my life, serving as a testament to the strength, resilience, and authenticity that define my journey. In the military, we are taught to face challenges head-on, to not back down in the face of adversity. This ethos has been prevalent throughout our history, including our LGBTQ+ history.
But I didn’t come to this understanding alone.
As I grappled with my decision and its repercussions, I thought about the brave LGBTQ+ military members who have come before me. Figures like:
- Harvey Milk, who, before becoming a symbol of gay rights as one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, served as a diving officer in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.
- Leonard Matlovich, a Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who, in 1975, openly declared his homosexuality to his superiors, intentionally challenging the military’s ban on gay service members, and was subsequently discharged. After a fight with AIDs he was buried with honors with a gravestone that did not list his name, rather only a quote: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran. When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
- Sheri Swokowski, a retired Colonel from the U.S. Army, and the highest-ranking openly transgender veteran in America. After a decorated 34-year career in the military, she has continued her advocacy for transgender rights. Swokowski submitted a request in May 2014 to have her name updated on DD Form 214, the “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty”. The Army granted this correction in January 2015. With the updated record, Swokowski attended Pentagon Pride events in 2015 while wearing her infantry brass; as women were not yet allowed to enter the infantry, her uniform served as a reminder of the existence of transgender soldiers, and she hoped to use her presence to represent the estimated 15,500 closeted transgender service members.
- Amanda Simpson, who, after a distinguished career in the private sector and public service, became the first openly transgender woman to both serve in the U.S. Department of Defense and later be appointed to a role by a U.S. President when she was selected by President Obama for a senior technical position in the Department of Commerce.
Their courage and determination were my beacon in the darkness, a reminder that no fear was too great to face, no adversity too great to overcome. The challenges they faced were not just for their own rights but for the rights of all LGBTQ+ service members, past, present, and future. Their efforts have opened doors and shattered barriers, enabling individuals like me to serve openly and authentically.
I have learned the power of confronting fear in the military, in the cockpit, and in my own personal journey. It’s scary, yes, but it’s also liberating. By facing our fears, by embracing our true selves, we can unlock a kind of strength and resilience that is truly transformative.
As I stand here today, a proud woman and decorated military officer, I acknowledge and honor their sacrifices and achievements. Their stories, combined with mine and countless others, form the rich tapestry of LGBTQ+ history in the military. They remind us that our identity is not a liability, but a source of strength and resilience.
By coming out, I aligned myself with the tireless advocacy efforts within our military and beyond, forming part of a larger, ongoing narrative of resilience and authenticity. And in this narrative, I discovered a renewed sense of purpose, strength, and worth. Through my work in providing peer support, education, and advocacy, I am standing on the shoulders of those who came before me, following their path of courage and defiance. Just as they did, I hope to leave the path a little easier for those who follow, continuing the legacy of overcoming fear, challenging the status quo, and pushing for a more inclusive military.
As I reflect on my journey during this Pride Month, I realize that I have come full circle. What began as a quest to prove my worth through facing the fear of heights and deep water, evolved into a deeper understanding of my true identity. This Pride Month, I urge everyone to remember that our celebration is not just about who we are, but about how far we’ve come. It’s about the trials and triumphs of our collective LGBTQ+ history. As we honor this journey, let us take pride in our identities and find strength in our authenticity.
Our history, from the Stonewall Riots to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to the lifting of the transgender service ban, shows us that progress is possible, that change can happen. But it takes courage, resilience, and authenticity. It requires us to face our fears, both individually and collectively.
I wish to express gratitude for those brave LGBTQ+ servicemembers who came before me, who faced their own fears and, in doing so, showed us all that authenticity is not just about being true to oneself, but also about making our world a more understanding, inclusive, and compassionate place. Let us honor their legacy by continuing to fight for a world where everyone, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, can serve openly and authentically.
This is my story. This is our story. Despite the heights, despite the deep water, we stand together. Together, we are stronger. Together, we are unstoppable. And together, we thrive.