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'To be out is to no longer be hiding’: An Airman’s perspective on Pride Month

  • Published
  • By Matthew Fink
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Over 13 years into her Air Force career, Tech. Sgt. Jenna Farthing is finally right where she wants to be: she lives less than 150 miles from her extended family, a luxury for most who serve on active duty. As the Operations Support Flight Chief for the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Training Squadron, she loves her job and the Airmen she works alongside. She is also proud of her work, providing direct support to the only DoD unit that trains nurses and technicians the art and skill of caring for ill and injured patients in the air.

However, Farthing will be the first to tell you that her journey here has been far from easy. As an out transgender woman, it has taken her years to achieve this feeling of accomplishment and confidence in who she is. For this reason, Farthing said she sees Pride Month as an opportunity for reflection, celebration, and to give back to the community which has already given her so much.

Path to purpose

Farthing’s path to enlisting in the Air Force was, in many ways, very typical: the daughter of a retired Senior Master Sergeant, she grew up moving every two to four years as her father changed duty stations. She spent her high school years at RAF Lakenheath, a Royal Air Force base in the United Kingdom, and after her senior year decided to move back to the United States to attend college in Iowa.

A car enthusiast, Farthing began working as an automotive technician after graduation. However, it wasn’t long before she felt like she needed to make a change and stepped into an Air Force recruiter’s office. While committing years of one’s life to the military would be a daunting decision for most, Farthing said the nature of her upbringing made her comfortable with the prospect.

“I’m an Air Force brat,” Farthing said. “Having gone to a DoD high school, I had lots of friends who were also joining. I knew the deal.”

Farthing enlisted in 2011 with an open general contract. During basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, she was selected for the Health Services Management specialty. Otherwise known as 4A0X1s, these Airmen provide administrative support to clinics and hospitals throughout the world.

After tech school, Farthing transferred to the 779th Medical Group at Joint Base Andrews, where she worked in outpatient records at the base hospital. In her last year there, she got assigned to the Airman Medical Transition Unit, which is responsible for managing the recoveries of Airmen who become wounded, ill, or injured.

“Say you’re stationed in Greenland and break your back,” she said. “Obviously, the Air Force doesn’t have extensive medical facilities there, so you’ll get transferred to somewhere like Andrews where we have the care you need, and your job is to be a patient. My office managed those people and helped them with their administrative paperwork such as medical boards and retirement out-processing.”

Farthing transferred to Scott Air Force Base in 2014 and began working in the field of aeromedical evacuation, a field she still works in today. AE is one of the Air Force’s unique missions, giving the United States the capability of airlifting casualties from battlefields and disaster zones to the proper treatment facilities.

As the non-commissioned officer-in-charge of resource management for the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Farthing said her job was providing the administrative support that was critical to keeping the unit functioning.

“I managed the crews, the nurses and techs at the back of the jet,” Farthing said. “Alerting them, making sure they have their paperwork for missions, putting them in crew rest, stuff like that.”

During her time at Scott, Farthing’s unit deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and, perhaps most memorably for her, the 2017 hurricane season which devastated communities in Houston and Puerto Rico.

“I remember my squadron mates talking about picking up nursing home residents on dialysis whose building lost power,” she said. “That’s the kind of work we do in AE. Whatever the need is, we move patients to higher echelons of care.”

“To be out is to no longer be hiding. Hiding is miserable, oppressive, and unbearable. On a personal level, even despite the obstacles I might face, being out is still better than being closeted. Showing that transgender people are just people, no matter what someone may have heard.”

– U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jenna Farthing, Operations Support Flight Chief for the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Training Squadron

In 2018, Farthing transferred from the fast-paced world of operations to a more erudite setting: The 375 AETS, a tenant unit within the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson. Her unit is responsible for conducting the Aeromedical Evacuation Initial Qualification, an intensive, 26-day course which encompasses necessary training on communications, logistics, safety, air operations, and aircraft systems for in-flight nurses and medical technicians.

Farthing said that, while her work keeps her occupied with manpower and budgeting instead of teaching students, its importance to the mission still brings her immense satisfaction.

“The part I really feel good about is knowing that what I do takes a lot of the administrative load off the instructors so they can do their jobs well,” Farthing said. “It feels good to know that the students we are sending out the door are going to be taking care of my friends, especially if there is near-peer conflict. Really, just being in aeromedical evacuation in general has been the highlight of my career.”

Embracing authenticity

Farthing’s life changed forever in 2020 when she came out to herself as a transgender woman, a realization that came with mixed feelings of elation, excitement, and nervousness. Despite the jitters, Farthing said that she felt certain she was on the right path.

“There was an element of, ‘what am I getting into?’, but I don’t think it actually took me a long time to come to terms with it,” Farthing said. “I had reservations, but I knew I had to do this.”

Though she came out to her wife almost immediately, Farthing stayed closeted among her coworkers, family, and friends until July 2021, over a year later. While she describes the experience of coming out to her family as among the most terrifying of her life, now she looks back on that experience fondly and with a wry sense of humor.

“There were definitely comments like, ‘why couldn’t you have figured this out when you were younger’ me, I know!” she joked.

Through it all, Farthing said she has been overwhelmed with the level of support she has received from her fellow Airmen, some of whom she has known for nearly a decade. In coming out to them, she felt like they were finally getting to see who she really was, someone she had been all along but hadn’t previously been able to express in public.

“My unit has been great,” said Farthing. “If there are people who have had better experiences than me, I don’t know them. I’ve been super lucky and am so thankful.”

Over three years after coming out, Farthing’s focus has shifted from her own transition to helping others find the same sense of community and acceptance as she did. Recently, she joined the Air Force’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning Initiative Team, serving as the Director of Programming for the team’s Education and Outreach Line of Effort. In this role, she helps organize Pride Month commemorations and volunteers for panels where she takes the opportunity to share her story.

“I talk to commanders, chiefs and supervisors a lot about what transgender people go through,” she said. “I point out that some of us end up losing family, spouses, and friends. I talk about putting pronouns in your email signature block so that it’s not just us doing it. Having leadership showing their support really sets the tone. People are listening.”

In Farthing’s view, celebrating Pride Month within the military plays a crucial role in making all service members feel welcome where they work.

“LGBTQ+ people have always been part of the force, and they always will be whether we know it or not,” Farthing said. “Making them feel welcome, seen and safe at work is important because it enables them to accomplish the mission.”

Aspirations and reflections

Looking back on her life thus far, Farthing said she has few personal or professional regrets. As she turns her thoughts to the next decade of her Air Force career, she is looking for more ways to give back. One goal Farthing has already set for herself is becoming a First Sergeant, or “shirt,” a non-commissioned officer in the Air Force that is responsible for advising commanders on the readiness, morale, health, welfare, and quality of life of Airmen and their families. Farthing said that being a shirt would mean once again walking in her father’s footsteps.

“My dad was only a shirt for a few months, but there were Airmen he served that came to his retirement five years later,” Farthing said. “I would like to have that kind of impact on people. Obviously, it isn’t always fun, but shirts get to focus on the Airmen themselves. I think it would feel good to share knowledge, problem solve, and help people improve.”

Fifty-five years after the Stonewall Riots began the modern movement for LGBTQ+ rights and over a decade since the repealing of Don't Ask, Don’t Tell, Farthing said she feels being out and visible is more important now than ever. By going to work, being herself, and continuing to do her job well as she has done for the last 13 years, Farthing finds the meaning in every day and with every interaction.

“To be out is to no longer be hiding,” Farthing said. “Hiding is miserable, oppressive, and unbearable. On a personal level, even despite the obstacles I might face, being out is still better than being closeted. Showing that transgender people are just people, no matter what someone may have heard.”