Thirty-One: 2023 DoD Pride Speech

Thirty-One: 2023 DoD Pride Speech

“Thirty-One” Speech Given at DoD Pride, Pentagon, June 2023

Transcript of speech:

These words are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Navy or the Department of Defense.

I had three speeches prepared for today. One that was happy and uplifting, pretending that everything is okay. Another that was fiery and angry because we know it is not. But I chose this one because this one is honest.

Sisters, Brothers, and Everyone in between, good morning

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.

I am also one of approximately 15,000 active and reserve transgender troops currently serving in our Military and the first Naval Aviator to regain their flight clearance to fly tactical aircraft post-transition.

I came out in April 2019, two days after a ban on trans-identifying individuals serving in the military was reinstated. It was horrible timing. Since that time, I have served my fellow servicemembers through peer support, education, and advocacy. Since that time, in this work, I and those I work with have seen 33 servicemembers take their own lives.

From Apr 2019 to Jan 2021, from ban creation to ban revocation, I saw 31 servicemembers, just like me, decide that no life was better than a repressed and unsupported one. And since Jan 2021, when trans-inclusive service was reinstated, I have seen 2.  From 31 dead to 2. We were here before any ban, we were here during, and we will be here serving whether you choose to see us or advert your eyes. Banned or not, trans individuals serve at twice the rate as our non-trans comrades, making the DoD the largest employer of trans-identifying individuals in the world.

I know 31 servicemembers who died from a poor DoD culture, that left them friend-less.

I know 31 who died from a lack of empowerment, that left them hopeless.

I know 31 who died because of extra requirements, ill-formed policies, and excessive bureaucracy that left them helpless.

And I know 31 who died from a lack of PRIDE. 

When the DoD could not show pride, we lost 31 and when the DoD showed love, we lost 2.

So, here is the math put plainly:

Servicemembers do not die because the services show pride, love, and rainbows.

Servicemembers don’t die because they do.

Pride saves lives, and Pride is a testament that the LGBT community endures and will endure, refusing to be erased.

WE – YOU AND I – DO NOT LEAVE OUR PEOPLE BEHIND and we owe it to those 31 to get BETTER.

When leaders genuinely care for their people, they earn their trust and loyalty. This trust creates a sense of unity, fostering teamwork and morale. By taking care of their people—addressing their physical, mental, and emotional well-being—leaders enhance the overall effectiveness and operational capabilities of their unit. Taking care of our people directly contributes to the successful accomplishment of missions and winning wars. Leaders, you bear the ethical responsibility of safeguarding the well-being of ALL those under your command.

Here where decisions and policies are shaped, we have the power to forge a future where everyone, regardless of gender identity or whom they love, can serve their nation with honor, dignity, and authenticity. Service members like me have proven time and again that we possess the courage, tenacity, and unwavering patriotism to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow service members. We have surmounted hurdles and won private battles that many of you cannot fathom.  We bring a strength forged through adversity and embody the very essence of resiliency. Our gender identity does not diminish our loyalty, our skills, or our deep love for our comrades-in-arms and the country we serve, it sharpens it.

We must reject the notion that gender identity should determine one’s worth or ability to serve and embrace that our military is stronger when it reflects the diversity and talent of the nation it defends. The open inclusion of Americans like me, combat-ready, transgender volunteers, enhances our readiness, promotes innovation, and fosters a culture of respect and understanding, that makes the armed forces BETTER.

In the cockpit, we are taught the importance of trust, and teamwork, because we rarely survive in combat if we go in alone. We cannot do this alone either, we need allies, we need wingmen to fly with us.  Unity is our greatest weapon; together, as a flight, WE can ensure that no one is left behind.

In our motley union of All Americans, it is not a question of if we tolerate minorities, but how we, a union of misfits, respond in the face of those who don’t. Do not let the freedom or dignity of any person be infringed nor diminished. Do not let the privilege of a few be bolstered at the cost of the rights of another.  It’s a slippery slope, so be selfish about it because your minority, whatever makes you different, could be next. Together let us be angelic troublemakers and architects of change. Let us sculpt a future where everyone can serve with pride regardless of what makes YOU – US – different.

If you take nothing else from these few words, take Desmond Tutu by his:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Stand with me and mine! Commit to me today that we never see a number like 31 again due to our lack of will or love.  We stand proudly with you willing and able to serve; I invite you to stand proudly with us. Together, let us shape a future where all individuals, regardless of who they love, or their gender identity, can serve their country with pride, knowing that they are valued, respected, and equal in every way. Let PRIDE be a powerful reminder of the collective strength that comes from embracing our differences, celebrating authenticity, and standing up for the rights of every individual, including transgender Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Guardians, and Coast Guardsmen, just like me, who are and yearn to serve. 

The hard, honest, transparent, and very real fact is that we left 31 servicemembers behind during the toughest battle of their lives.

Get better, assess, improve, and remove the barriers to life-saving care, life-saving authenticity, and life-saving Pride.  Commit to letting every service member thrive and let their service thrive in them.