Shining a Light
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- As a child, insulated in her bedroom, books taught her to dream of worlds beyond the dark realities of inner-city Chicago.
Now 21 years old, Senior Airman Kayla Dale, an African-American lesbian, has faced scrutiny and battled stereotypes her entire life. She remembers the prologue, but insists on telling her story her way: with a smile.
"My life motto is 'I want to be the light I see in the world,'" said Kayla. "If I shine my light bright enough on others maybe it will spark a flame and inspire them."
Growing up ensconced in a city and community suffering the effects of gang violence and poor public education, Kayla vowed not to become a statistic. She found a muse and creative outlet by reading and writing.
"I saw some bad things growing up," said Kayla, now a 51st Maintenance Squadron non-destructive inspector at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. "Fights, violence and shootings were normal to me, so I was in books all the time. The life outside just didn't mean anything to me because I had my books."
Determined to get out of the city and make her own way, Kayla joined the Air Force Sept. 27, 2011. The date is noteworthy, less than a year after Congress enacted the Don't Ask Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010.
"I wouldn't have been able to hide who I am under Don't Ask Don't Tell," said Kayla. "I'm an open person. I converse freely and couldn't do that with Don't Ask Don't Tell."
Joining the Air Force opened volumes of opportunities for her, said Kayla. Since 2011, she's been able to travel, learn and become the kind of role model she wants to be for her 15-year-old brother.
"I love the Air Force and my job," said Kayla. "The military allows me to be the most amazing person that I can."
Although she's excited to be starting a new chapter of her life in the military, Kayla frequently thinks of her family in Chicago.
Her aunt, Abena Sharon Dale, a freelance photographer in Chicago, also a lesbian, said there's a great conflict in Chicago, and she understands why her niece wanted to branch out.
"I love Chicago," said Abena. "It's full of creative artists. There is no better place to be culturally. However, younger people have different challenges than most adults. Chicago is plagued with some people who do not respect life. "
Drive by shootings, turf wars and frequent conflicts, even among school children, are vivid footnotes in Kayla's past. She remembers witnessing a fight between two grammar schools located blocks from each other.
"This was a huge brawl," said Kayla. "Forty people with bricks, smashing peoples heads open. I knew girls that went to school with razor blades in their mouth. That was normal, and it shouldn't be."
With dehumanizing conditions swarming around her like a tempest, she found shelter between the borders of stories.
"Reading saved me," said Kayla. "It helped me dream big and stay out of trouble in the neighborhood."
Abena remembers her niece's love for reading and poetry growing up too.
"Kayla was always reading growing up," said Abena. "She wrote her first poem at age 7 or 8 and was bold enough to perform an unwritten poem off the top of her head in front of people. She's always been determined, insightful and curious."
However, the novels of Toni Morrison and poems of Maya Angelou gave weren't just entertainment for Kayla. They inspired her and she resolved to not let her story be drafted by her surroundings.
"I was determined to be on my own," said Kayla. "I was determined for my children not to grow up in the same environment and be dehumanized like I was. I was determined for my children not to know some of the horrible things in Chicago."
She turned the page by joining the Air Force, a move that concerned and surprised a lot of people.
"I was initially apprehensive about her going into the service," said Abena. " Now I'm a little less nervous because of the branch of military she chose. I'm very proud of her. She knows who she is at such a young age and dares to live boldly."
Initially concerned that homosexual service members wouldn't have the right to legal marriage, Kayla said she's thrilled at the progress made in the Air Force and Department of Defense.
"I was afraid that it would take a long time for gay marriage to be acknowledged," said Kayla. "If it wouldn't be acknowledged by the end of my six years I wouldn't have stayed in. I'm very proud to be able to serve in a force that acknowledges people are people despite sexual orientation."
While she said she's been treated with equity and respect in the Air Force, as a double minority, Kayla acknowledges she's been fighting preconceptions and social backlash her whole life.
"Chicago is one of the most racially divided cities I've seen," said Kayla. "At a young age you're taught instinctively to flock to your own kind. People definitely have prejudices about you based on your skin color. It's not at all like it is in the military."
In addition to racial bias, her sexual orientation has caused her backlash in the African-American community too.
"In a lot of ways, the gay community and the black community are at odds," said Kayla. "Growing up, I was told being gay was wrong. That if I was gay I would go to hell."
These teachings put her in denial as a young woman.
"I grew up liking girls, but I wasn't accepting of my sexuality at first," said Kayla. "I didn't want to be gay. I tried to prove to myself that I wasn't gay."
After coming to terms with her sexuality and admitting her attraction to a girl in December of 2007, Kayla waited years to come out because she was afraid of what her parents would think.
"I think my parents suspected for a while because when I was 14 my mother told me that if I was gay it would break her heart," said Kayla. "My dad wasn't happy about it when he found out either. I was scared of coming out to people. I was scared of people not wanting to be my friend. I was scared of people thinking I wanted them when I didn't."
Criticism from her parents upset Kayla because she looks up to them. She praises her mother's cooking and credits her father with instilling a great work ethic in her and teaching her to be an independent person, but she remains unflinching.
"It's disappointing they have such a problem with it, but this is who I am," said Kayla. "I've learned that I have to be happy with myself, and if other people can't accept it then that's their problem."
Coming out has affected her spiritually, too. Instructed in Christianity growing up, Kayla still has a strong faith in God, and said it hurts when people use religion to attack homosexuality.
"I'm struggling right now with my feelings toward the Bible," said Kayla. "It made me question myself growing up because I didn't want to be gay. It's a struggle I still have. I love me, I love who I am, and I love the Lord. In my mind, the Lord can't be angry with me for loving someone, despite what a book says."
While she understands people who disagree with homosexuality on a personal level, Kayla thinks everyone deserves equality.
"Even if you don't think it's the best thing in the world, I don't see how anyone can be ok with depriving people of human rights," said Kayla. "I deserve to get married so when I die, my significant other isn't just a 'long time friend.' I deserve the right to adopt and raise a child. All I ask for is acceptance and respect, even if you can't understand me."
Kayla found that opportunity for acceptance and respect in the Air Force, where she's been supported and treated with equity and tolerance. Just being accepted isn't enough for her, however. She wants to excel.
"I'd love to stay in and make chief," said Kayla. "I think I can do it, and I want to fight the stigma of being black, female and lesbian. I want to show the world that I am more than a category."
Moving beyond personal goals and achievements, Kayla said the overarching theme of her life is about loving people and brightening the world around her.
"I want to be the light I see in the world,'" said Kayla. "The world is a very dark place. There are good people, but a lot of dark places. I come from a dark place, so I know that when you have a light, you share it."
Her story far from finished, with characters to be developed, narrative arcs to play out, divers details to be forged and decades to live before going to press, Kayla said it's important to look at people beyond the binding or cover. People are greater than what they appear to be and what's most important is making the world a little brighter for the people she comes into contact with and teaching people to author their own lives.
"I'm Kayla Dale," she said. "I happen to be black and I happen to be gay. Those don't define me. What defines me is I want to make the world a better place. What defines me is how hard I work and my ambition. What defines me is my smile. Not who I sleep with, and not what my genetic makeup is. I don't want that to be what other people define me as. I want to be a badass Airman who cares about her work and cares about people."