Military LGBTQ+ rights and allyship the focus of Diversity Convocation

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wikfors.

Students, faculty and staff packed Sharp Theater on Feb. 23 as President Cindy Jebb and guest speaker Brenda Fulton held a conversation about the intersections of being a queer woman at West Point advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in the military and allyship.

The event, Ramapo’s 16th annual Diversity Convocation, was hosted by the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance (EDIC). Nicole Morgan Agard, chief diversity officer, opened the event, explaining it was an honor to continue this tradition and urged that anyone can bring about change and awareness.

Fulton is a former military executive — honorably discharged at the rank of captain — and among West Point’s first graduating class of women admitted to the school in 1980. She was also a key figure in the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the fight against the military’s transgender ban.

“Start by saying hello. Start by introducing yourself to someone who does not look like you. You don’t need to wait to make a change,” Agard said.

The first question Jebb asked Fulton in the discussion was what her time at West Point was like. Fulton said that she was looking for a way to pay for college in 1976 and was seeking an ROTC scholarship. When she heard women were eligible to apply for West Point that year, she jumped at the chance.

“‘I’m going to do it. I’m not going to waver,’” Fulton told the audience when recounting her story. “It was a challenge. I wanted to be challenged.”

As one of the first women admitted into West Point, Fulton said that she and the other women of her year were seen as an “alien kind of women.” Fulton gave an example of a sophomore English class she tested into freshman year. On the first day of that class, she was singled out by a commanding officer.

“‘Welcome gentlemen and lady.’ Then, I realized I was the only woman in the room,” Fulton said. She said it was the course instructor that made her feel “just okay to be here” by diverting attention away from her being in the class, even if that instructor was also not fond of the idea of having women at West Point.

When asked about her challenges as a gay woman at the time, Fulton said she did not acknowledge her sexuality.

“Listen. It was 1976 through 1980. Denial was a wonderful thing, especially when you are under the kind of pressure like at West Point,” she said.

Fulton has since embraced her identity and it is part of her advocacy work with the military. 

When discussing allyship, Fulton expressed a similar sentiment to Agard’s opening remarks. She said one of the mistakes of allyship is “setting out to be an ally rather than being a decent human being and getting to know others.” 

Fulton spoke about her natural draw towards people who are different from her. She learned about different cultures and experiences from people she spoke to, but she also did some research herself to continue the work. 

“It’s hard to be an ally without stumbling or screwing up, but you have to keep at it,” she said.

She gave her work with Sparta, a transgender military advocacy organization, as an example of this and of how to leverage one’s privilege to fight discrimination. After “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, Fulton said she met a transgender West Point graduate who shared her story with her and learned that the work to repeal the bill still left transgender individuals barred from service.

When working with Sparta, Fulton said she used her privilege to schedule meetings with high-ranking military officers and stepped down after the transgender ban was repealed so the organization could be led by trans women as intended. 

“The work isn’t done,” Fulton said. “You don’t leave anybody behind.”