In her work, Cynthia Shelton, managing director of MITRE’s Enterprise Intelligence Systems Division, knows how to keep information secure. But regarding her personal life, she’s an open book. As a lesbian, veteran, and intelligence professional, she’s committed to living her life authentically and purposefully—and finds MITRE’s culture of acceptance and commitment to diversity a welcome change from where she began. Shelton talks about her path not just to MITRE, but to becoming candid about her identity as well.
Intelligence Officer Lives Openly, Authentically
I lead a division of highly committed technical people who provide ideas and solutions in support of the intelligence community’s mission and our nation’s national security. We look at things like defensive cyber operations, counterintelligence, solving data problems, and cloud engineering. We’re modernizing networks and communications for the future because the intel community is slowly shifting toward a more collaborative, sharing mindset.
Sharing is something I understand well. I came out as a lesbian in 1991, nine years into my career. During that era of my life, I was afraid. Afraid of being witch-hunted. Worried that my sexuality would impact my career. Now, it’s just there.
A Life of Service from Day One
My father was in the military. I was born on an Air Force base. I always knew I wanted to serve my country.
I’ve wanted to do intelligence work since I was freshman at the Air Force Academy. As a Chinese Studies major, I was fascinated with political science and history. Once I learned about the intelligence career path, I knew there was nothing else I was going to do.
When I graduated in 1982, there were only 15 slots available for cadets to become intelligence officers, and I was selected for one of them. Now, that was a big deal for me! I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue in that arena all through my professional life.
Out and About in a New Career
When I came out, I felt like I couldn’t be in the military anymore. By then, I had been married and divorced. My ex-husband and my family sat me down and gently suggested I might want to get out of the Air Force. They said they didn’t want my personal life on the front page of a newspaper—not because they were worried about themselves, but because they cared about me and my safety.
For a while, I wasn’t out to people at work after I transitioned from the military to civilian positions. I did run into some prejudices. A high-level government agency manager I briefly worked with said outright that she didn’t want to work with me because I “looked gay.”
Other people would make inappropriate comments without knowing about me. I mentioned to another former colleague, whose office was decorated with photos of planes, that I had been an intel officer for an F-15 squadron. He said, in a bantering way, “Well, you know, only homosexuals fly F-15s.”
I said, “Oh. Is that true? Then I must be an F-15 pilot.”
Eventually, I decided that to be my authentic self, I had to let people know who I am. I began mentioning I was gay as a matter of fact. As long as I said it, nobody could harm me professionally or personally, because I was acknowledging it.
Diversity Produces “Something Special”
I’ve been lucky to be able to live an authentic life. In job interviews, even though I know I don’t have to share, I’ll say I have a wife, I have two children. I’m a lesbian. It’s just a fact of life. It’s just part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am.
MITRE has a true focus on inclusion and diversity throughout the company. More and more, it’s central to who we are and the work we do.
And it’s not just your gender or ethnicity or race or sexuality, either. It’s all of the dimensions of diversity. I’m from the East Coast; somebody else might be from the West Coast. I’m of a certain age group. I’m hearing-impaired. Some people are right-brain thinkers, and some are left-brained.
When you allow people to bring all their differences and similarities to the work they do, you get something very special.
—as told to Nancy Romps
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