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Inside Out: Memories from Inside the Closet

The following is a guest blog post by Dr. Circe Olson Woessner, Director of the Museum of American Military Family and Learning Center in Tijeras, New Mexico.

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month.  This month-long celebration demonstrates how LGBTQ+ Americans have strengthened our country by using their talent and creativity to help create awareness and goodwill.  For many LGBTQ+ veterans, following a call to serve meant keeping their private lives entirely private, for fear that exclusionary policies would hold them back or end their careers altogether. In honor of Pride Month, the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center (MAMF) shares about one of their exhibits, “Inside Out.”

Tell us about the museum.

Man, woman, man in front of banner for museum

Director Circe Olson Woessner, Phil Pohl, Special Projects Manager and Allen Dale Olson Secretary/Public Affairs in front of the Museum in Tijeras. Photo provided by Circe Olson Woessner.

I grew up overseas, married into the military and am the mother to an Army veteran. I can attest that when one member of a family serves, we all serve.  We pick up and move at the drop of a hat, we leave jobs, schools and friends, and do this over and over in two to three year cycles. We assimilate to new cultures and customs, learn new jobs, and we keep our households running, despite whatever challenge comes our way. As a museum, we therefore thought it was important to have a symbolic home for military families to come to and share their unique stories in order for us all to have a more complete picture of history – a story from all perspectives.  Because of this, my father, Dr. Allen Dale Olson and I founded the museum in 2011. Our anthologies, programming and exhibits present unique stories that haven’t often been shared. MAMF is a 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit museum that celebrates the contributions of American military families by soliciting personal memories in the form of postcards, drawings, artifacts such as prayer flags and aprons, oral histories and more. Our mission is to collect, preserve, interpret and share the important stories of those who stood behind the men and women in uniform for more than 400 years.  We share the home front stories of joy, heartbreak and everything in between through audio and video podcasts, galleries and displays throughout the museum.

Tell us about the Inside Out exhibit.

We are so grateful for the number of collaborations we have had since the start of the museum including the Veterans History Project, New Mexico Arts and the Love Armor project and many more. We recently collaborated with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and psychologist Dr. Kyle Erwin on the exhibit titled Inside Out: Memories from Inside the Closet.  I had seen an art project on social media in which Amy Combat Uniforms (ACU) shirts were painted.  I wish I could remember and credit the creator; the project was stunning. I spoke to Dr. Erwin about it and he developed a workshop for LGBTQ+ Albuquerque veterans to bring their ACU or Battle Dress Uniform tops (BDU) to us, turn them inside out and paint and write on them. Turning the uniforms inside out not only made them easier to paint, but also was a symbolic nod to having to live not as yourself, but rather to hide oneself or turn oneself inside out. The program grew and was featured in a traveling display at Sandia National Labs’ for “Coming Out Day.” By 2019, we were able to have the display featured as an in-house rotating exhibit. To view the shirts , visitors must make a conscious choice to open a closet door, somewhat mirroring the decisions that LGBTQ+ service members and veterans must make. Some veterans have a closeted LGBTQ+ identity in the veteran community, and/or closet their veteran identity within the LGBTQ+ community.

Military jackets hanging in closet

ACUs and BDUs turned inside out, painted by veterans and military family members and displayed at MAMF inside a closet. Photo provided by Circe Olson Woessner.

How have the veterans who have participated reacted to the exhibit?

Woman standing outside with inside out, decorated military jacket

Ms. Duke and her creation at the 2017 event at MAMF. Photo provided by Circe Olson Woessner.

Quite well! Army veteran, Theresa Duke contributed a shirt and story to the anthology.  She said: “The thing about being asked to contribute my story and artwork to this exhibit is that it made me examine my life and put everything into perspective. I realize that some of the ways I was being treated by my fellow service members was not normal and saw how it affected my life.”

How has the exhibit been received by the public?

We are so proud and honored to have the exhibit featured at MAMF. Inside Out: Memories from Inside the Closet and SHOUT! Sharing our Truth(a book by Lora Beldon and Circe Olson Woessner of compiled LGBTQ+ service members and family members of U.S. military services) received the American Association for State and Local History’s prestigious Albert B. Corey Award.

Dr. Deborah Cohler, a professor and researcher at San Francisco State University said: “This is a powerful exhibit. Each textile reflects individual experiences of LGBTQIA US service members, and as a whole, the project reflects the history, trauma, fears, and pride of LGBTQ service members before, during, and after the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era. For the audience, we are moved by individual stories and by what could not be spoken, but can now be represented in art. For the nation, the shirts trace a critically important moment in US military and civil rights histories.”

Women standing outside looking at decorated, inside out military jacket

Ms. Duke and Professor Cohler at the outside installation of Inside Out! in 2017.
Photo provided by Circe Olson Woessner.

What is next for the Museum:

SHOUT! the play, based off of Theresa Duke’s Inner Voices and scripted by Melissa Rayford will be presented in an online performance on June 27th, 2021, and is slated to performed in a full production at Pride RI in 2022.  We must acknowledge and discuss the range of sexual practices, orientations, and identities of members of the US military; to acknowledge LGBTQIA people’s struggles and celebrate their achievements.

Later this year, we will unveil our ongoing multimedia project E Pluribus Unum-GRAICE UNDER PRESSURE: Gender, Religion, rAce, Identity, Culture, Ethnicity in the military. This project will explore how one unites with service and still keeps one’s unique personhood.  We plan to make this project accessible via our podcast and a book.

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