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Wear the sweater: A PRIDE story

Senior Airman Tristen Flying Horse, 2nd Munitions Squadron stockpile technician, poses for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 29, 2020.

Senior Airman Tristen Flying Horse, 2nd Munitions Squadron stockpile technician, poses for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 29, 2020. Flying Horse shares his journey of struggle and resiliency to encourage others in LGBTQ community. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Cassandra Johnson)

Senior Airman Tristen Flying Horse, 2nd Munitions Squadron stockpile technician, poses for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 29, 2020.

Senior Airman Tristen Flying Horse, 2nd Munitions Squadron stockpile technician, poses for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., June 29, 2020. Flying Horse shares his journey of struggle and resiliency to encourage others in LGBTQ community. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Cassandra Johnson)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

Everyone has memories from their youth, while some may stick out more than others, it’s hard to know which ones will hold weight.

For Senior Airman Tristen Flying Horse, 2nd Munitions Squadron stockpile technician, one of those memories involves a sweater. An innocent piece of clothing made of cotton or polyester that would hold significant meaning into his adulthood.

“When I was younger, I used to wear this one sweater that was a little tighter fitting,” Flying Horse said. “People would say ‘that’s so gay’ even though it was just a sweater. and I liked the way it fit. Eventually I allowed those opinions to get the better of me and I stopped wearing it, and I think once you start doing that you start stripping away your own identity.”

Growing up, Flying Horse always felt different. He gravitated towards things that didn’t fit the stereotypical interests of a young boy, but he always felt like he had to keep that part of himself hidden.

“It's unfortunate that I had to hide who I was, and it made me live a large portion of my life in fear,” Flying Horse said. “I always knew I was gay, so for me it's really hard to say when I realized it because I've always known.”

When he was younger, he didn’t feel comfortable talking to people, especially about his sexuality. So, when he was ready to come out to his mother, he did so in a note.

“I did this a couple of weeks after my older brother came out and wasn’t sure what she was going to say,” Flying Horse said. “I texted her after a while and asked her if she got my note. She did and she basically said, ‘oh two gay sons, I hope my daughter isn’t a lesbian’, I wasn’t expecting that reaction.”

His mother would later come to regret this comment and apologize for her reaction, but at the time the damage was done. He started feeling more uncomfortable around his family as word started to spread.

“I remember being in the living room with my family and my dad saying he didn’t want a gay son,” Flying Horse said. “I thought to myself, ‘wow he really said that,’ and I didn’t understand why. Also, at the time I was going to school off the reservation I grew up on and was getting not only homophobic slurs, but racial ones too.”

This negativity started to compile, and he continued to be uncomfortable with who he was. After heading off to college he started meeting more people within the LGBTQ community.

“It was super different from what I had experienced, because everyone was just living life and not really caring about what others thought,” Flying Horse said. “However at the time, I still really wasn’t talking to my family and I was still feeling like they didn’t accept me.”

Even though he found this community where he could belong, he still felt uncomfortable sharing his whole self with anyone. The negative and off-hand things said to him earlier in life continued to affect him mentally.

“It all just became really hard to juggle,” Flying Horse said. “After two years of college and getting caught up in the party lifestyle I decided to enlist in the Air Force to get my life back on track.”

After about three months, he was off to basic training. All through basic training and technical school he didn’t share very much with anybody and avoided most conversation all together. Before he knew it, he was off to his first duty station, Misawa Air Base, Japan.

“I really liked Misawa, but I still felt like I had to keep myself hidden,” Flying Horse said. “People would just assume I was straight, and I would just go along with it and not correct them. It was the way I kept myself protected because at this point, I had experienced so much rejection it was easier to stay hidden than to risk anymore negativity.”

In Misawa he began to meet friends he would feel comfortable enough sharing his whole self with, but he found even those friends would stop talking to him after they knew about his sexuality. While in Japan, he experienced his first major loss of a loved one.

“My aunt was the only one in my family whose love I felt I never had to question after I came out,” Flying Horse said. “She would always say ‘I love you no matter what’, so it was really hard for me to lose her.”

Dealing with the death of his aunt, culminated with rejection and negativity his entire life, led to a fateful decision.

“I decided to take pills to end my life,” Flying Horse said. “I remember as soon as I took them, I instantly regretted it, but thankfully I was able to get myself to the hospital in time.”

He would end up spending a week in the hospital before reluctantly going to an inpatient program in Dallas. At first, he was closed minded to the experience, but then after receiving a call from his parents, he decided to give the treatment a chance.

“I liked the facility and it genuinely felt like they really cared,” Flying Horse explained. “I got a lot of things out that I really didn’t know I could. During this time my dad called me and apologized for things he had said in the past that made me feel uncomfortable.”

“When he apologized it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, because at that point, I was in such a dark place. It definitely made me feel more welcomed in my own family. I started to live with less fear that day,” Flying Horse added.

During his time in treatment, he was empowered to talk to his mother about everything he had kept bottled up over the years. This allowed for him to build a new relationship with his mother built on honesty and acceptance.

“I feel we are more open about things now,” said Renae Talley, Flying Horse’s mother. “He can talk to me about men he has met and dates he has been on. All of which have never been a part of our conversations before.”

After successfully completing his treatment in Dallas, he moved to Barksdale Air Force Base. Today, after all he has been through, Flying Horse tries to live his life without allowing people’s opinions to influence his happiness.

“Before I lived in so much fear, and it made me not love myself,” Flying Horse said. “I never realized how detrimental that was until I had fully accepted myself.”

“I used to wish I was never born or that I was ‘straight’, and it's scary how fear can push you down such a dark path. That's why I encourage people to be all around respectful. Your words have power and can push someone to live in fear,” Flying Horse added.

His mother on the other hand, encourages other parents to be understanding and offers her advice after all her and her son have been through together.

“Your child came to you for a reason. In their mind you are the one who will still love them no matter what and will accept them for who they are and for who they love,” Talley said. “I hope that you will be supportive and hope that you will continue to love them just as much as you did the day they were born, unconditionally.”

To anyone feeling as he did, Flying Horse offers these words of advice, “live your life how you want to live it. Love who you want to love, and just be your most authentic self. Wear the sweater.”