NAVAIR TDOR 2023 – Speaker for the Dead
Part 1: Introduction and The Paradox of Perception
Leaders, Allies, and Wingmen,
I am Commander Emily “Hawking” Shilling, She/Her. I am an honor graduate of Test Pilot School, have flown 60 combat missions, 21 airframes, and over 17 hundred hours. I received the Daedalian award for saving my aircraft and crew, from a near-certain total loss. I have also received numerous other military and civilian accolades including air medals, and advocacy awards. The Navy has spent nearly 40 million dollars and 19 years honing me into a pristine warfighting and acquisition professional.
I also, and this should be the least interesting part about me, but is the whole reason I stand here today, am the senior most line officer and naval aviator in the US navy who happens to also be transgender. I stand before you, as a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity, as living and thriving proof that the human spirit is indomitable and will seek the light even in the dark.
I was asked to stand here today and guide us, not merely to mourn, but to honor and acknowledge the stark realities faced by the transgender community—a community to which I belong, proudly.
I speak to you not just as a transgender officer, but as a testament to the valor and integrity of countless service members striving for equality and recognition. We remember the fallen, our transgender brothers and sisters whose only transgression was daring to live authentically. They, too, had dreams and aspirations, they, too, loved and were loved, yet they were silenced—sometimes by those they held dear, and sometimes by the very society they sought to protect.
Albert Cashier, bravely served as a Union soldier in the Civil War with the 95th Illinois Infantry, fighting in 40 different engagements. He was discharged honorably and lived the rest of his life, voting in elections, and accessing veteran’s benefits. Albert however, was a transgender man living in secret, a secret preserved until his death. After his death, his secret was discovered. Even then his fellow soldiers, and commanders demanded that he be buried with full military honors under his chosen name. This is how he was buried, until, years later, it was viewed through a more restricted lens. His grave was altered to reflect his birth name, not for him, not for those who served with him, but for people who did not know him, and choose not to see. A soldier, who served with courage and loyalty, was seen for his authentic self in times of rigid social norms because of his service, only to be stripped by others just to be cruel.
The danger of silence is not just historical; it is immediate, it is urgent.
Let me share with you a few words, inspired by a a poem often used, but rarely understood.
They came for the communists, and we said nothing because we were not communists.
They came for the socialists, and we said nothing because we were not socialists.
They came for the different races, but we were not their color.
They came for the religious, but we were not their faith.
They came for the lovers, but we were not their type.
We said nothing because we were not them.
Only now do we whisper, “That wasn’t right”,
Grateful it wasn’t us.
They come for me, in-spite of my rage,
And you say nothing, because you are not me.
They come for you,
Do not fain surprise when there is no one left to hear your screams.
Replace the groups mentioned with any marginalized community, and the message remains unchanged.
Silence is an illusory refuge. When the foot of oppression bears down upon the vulnerable, silence is not a sanctuary, but an accomplice to cruelty.
My presence here is not just professional; it’s personal. I am a warrior, a guardian of freedom, and like each one of you, I swore to support and defend the Constitution. Our oaths do not discriminate, and neither should our compassion.
Part 2: The Navy’s Diversity and the Paradox of the Pile
Envision with me a pile of sand here on this stage. Each grain represents a life, unique and whole. From afar, you might see a singular mass, a collective without distinction. But I assure you, up close, every grain tells a story. Each one’s shape, color, and texture is its own. This is a paradox of perception – from where you sit, the differences are invisible, yet they are profoundly real. And in fact, if they were all identical and smooth, the pile would be unable to hold itself together.
Now, imagine we begin to dismiss these grains, one by one. In their singularity, we deem them inconsequential. But as each grain falls away, our pile diminishes until, what was once a mound of sand, one by one, becomes nothing. This is the sorties paradox in practice, and it serves as a metaphor for the erosion of our freedoms and the lives of our diverse identities. We may think the loss of one voice, one right, one person, doesn’t alter the grand scheme, but it does. Gradually, our foundational pile of freedom and diversity is eroded, one piece at a time, until we are left wondering when we ceased to be what we once proudly declared ourselves to be.
Our nation’s greatness is not just in its power but in its promise of liberty and justice for all. How do we uphold freedom when we allow it to be chipped away, grain by grain? It is our duty to speak, to act, to preserve every grain. Let’s not just whisper in hindsight but declare in foresight that we will stand against the erosion of freedom for any individual. I call upon you to see the value in each grain of sand, in each life, and to guard our pile with unwavering vigilance. Today, we are here to ensure that not one more grain falls unnoticed, not one more life is discounted.
The true measure of our character, as individuals and as a collective NAVAIR family, is how we choose to stand up for those who are no longer able to.
Before we continue, lets us echo the voices of the dead and share in their silence.
[PAUSE FOR SILENCE]
Part 3: Commitment to Action and Inclusion
Today, I speak for the dead,
As we come together on this solemn occasion, and/ reflect on our unique contributions to the strength and diversity of our Navy. Let us imagine ourselves, for a moment, not just as colleagues, but as a representation of the world at large. Let us imagine there are 100 of us, then we would be as such:
– 31 would follow Christianity, 23 Islam, 16 none, with 15 Hindu, 7 Buddhist, and the remaining 8 walking other spiritual paths.
– Our genders would be varied, with 50 female, 48 male, and 2 identifying as transgender or intersex.
– 12 would belong to the LGBTQ community, 25 if we are speaking of Generation Z.
– Disabilities, visible and other, would affect the daily lives of 20 among us.
– In terms of profession, 10 would be artists, 15 engineers, and 7 teachers.
– Our age range would be broad, with 15 under the age of 15, and 9 aged 64 or over.
– A notable 25 would be left-handed.
– The diversity of our interests would show 15 avid readers, 10 passionate sports fans, and 5 who actively volunteer.
– Only 1 serves in the military, underlining the singular commitment it takes to serve.
This array of individuality is what powers our collective efforts. It is the essence of our success, and it is the heart of who we are at NAVAIR. Each of us has something that is unique, that is different than the rest.
However, today, I draw your attention to a more personal subset of this diversity. If this room were filled with 100 transgender individuals like myself, we would see a sobering reality:
– Half would have faced suicidal thoughts within the last year alone, with 40 having made an attempt in their lifetime due to societal pressures and stigma.
– 30 would have struggled significantly to access basic medical care. And another 30 would have been homeless at some point.
– 25 would be unemployed, experiencing a rate of joblessness twice that of their peers.
– The poverty rate would be staggering, with 33 living well below the poverty line, compared to 12 among non-transgender individuals.
– A heartbreaking 47 would have been victims of sexual assault.
– 25 would have been subjected to violence purely driven by bias.
– An unacceptable 58 would have faced harassment at the hands of law enforcement.
– And 2, twice the number of the general population, would serve.
This paints a grim picture, a reality that sees my transgender community facing a reduction in life expectancy by over a decade, threatened by violence, suicide, and medical negligence at a rate alarmingly higher than our non-transgender counterparts. The freedom I fought for, will cost me 10 years of my life.
The upward trend in reported deaths of transgender individuals is a somber reflection of the ongoing challenges. From as few as 10 reported per year a decade ago to a peak of 74 in 2021, these figures are a call to action. They are a stark reminder of the cost of living one’s truth in the face of ignorance and fear.
It is not hopeless though. Other studies, one particular study on transgender and non-binary youth from the Trevor Project, show that having a supportive environment, either a church, a single family member, or a workplace like NAVAIR, can reduce suicide attempts by nearly 50%. This is not coincident. Visibly, verbally, and emotionally showing pride and love for people, saves lives, time and again. A single act of kindness can save a life. A silly little pronoun in a signature block can let someone feel seen and save a life.
From at least one peer is accepting, suicide rates decrease by, 34%
From a variety of adults, 43%
From multiple family members, 49%
From school professionals, 33%
From healthcare professionals, 32%
In the face of adversity, it is often the smallest gestures that carry the greatest impact. I stand before you as a testament to the power of support — a living example that a few individuals can ignite hope in the midst of challenge.
The acceptance I’ve received in my journey has been a beacon. Four individuals, in particular, became my pillars when I felt the world crumbling around me. An astute coworker who listened when I felt lost, a child whose love knew no bounds when I felt unlovable, a shipmate who stood by me when my armor was down, and a leader who quietly showed solidarity when I could see no one like me in charge, they each played a crucial role in my survival.
When I bravely stepped into the light of my truth, the costs were steep. The end of my marriage, the threat to my career, and the loss of my ability to fly — these were the seas I navigated. Yet, it was in these waters that I found my chosen family, a kinship born not of shared blood but of shared humanity.
My experience is but one narrative among a diverse many in our Navy. Each of us has the capacity to extend this kind of support, to be the ally that turns the tide for someone else. Through our actions, small and large, we weave a stronger, more inclusive fabric that upholds the values we defend as members of this great institution.
As we honor those we’ve lost, let us also commit to being the architects of hope. Let our actions, our words, and our beliefs be guided by compassion and respect. Let us each be a beacon of support and let us start today.
Reflect not only on the lives cut short but also on the lives we have the power to lift up. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is more than a principle; it is action, it is support, it is the acknowledgment of each person’s humanity. In doing so, we honor the memory of those we’ve lost and provide a haven for those still living.
Together, let’s vow to nurture an environment where all can serve with dignity, and respect, where every member of NAVAIR is included and can soar to their highest potential. Unencumbered by prejudice and empowered by the unity of our mission. We are each a unique grain in our messy pile of humanity, and when we stand together, and refuse to be divided or discarded, our Navy, our mission, and our nation are invincible.
To deny our authenticity is to lower our colors in the face of adversity. This the Navy has never done, and shall never do while we stand the watch.
Thank you for your attention, your respect, and your commitment to not just remembering, but acting and winning with inclusion and respect for all.