Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is centering his campaign around support for anti-gay “religious liberty,” claiming that Christians forced to tolerate gay people face religious persecution. On Sunday, Cruz released a video profiling “victims” of LGBT nondiscrimination measures. It was all nonsense, but one segment was particularly inaccurate: Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Monk alleged that he was “fired” by his lesbian commanding officer for “expressing a traditional view of marriage.”
That commanding officer was Lt. Col. Liz Valenzuela, a married mother of two who served two tours of duty in Iraq. I spoke to her on Tuesday about the conflict with Monk, her experiences with homophobia, and the Cruz video.
What led to the conflict between you and Monk?
One military training instructor who worked for me and counseled young airmen told them: “Homosexuals were the downfall of Rome, and now they’ll be the downfall of the military, and the military will fall because of their lust and greed.” About 13 trainees filed a complaint against him. Those complaints went straight to my boss, who told me we had to something about it.
I went to legal, and legal said, “You have to do something about this.” We had a zero tolerance policy on discrimination. I went back to my staff and told them. Monk said, “He’s got freedom of speech!” But we had to discipline the instructor. It wasn’t even a huge punishment. It was a warning.
Monk was up in arms. He came to me and said, “You know, ma’am, I can tell we’re not gonna agree on this. My replacement is already coming in. Do you mind if I take leave while this happens?” I said, “Sure, it’s your prerogative.” He walked out of my office, filled out the paperwork, gave it to me, and I approved.
Then he said I fired him.
But he was scheduled to leave the position already.
Yes. When I first met Monk, he told me, “I’m getting ready to leave, and I don’t want to get too involved with the squadron.” He was slated to rotate out.
How quickly did Monk take his story public?
The Wednesday after he went on leave, I was at a restaurant, and my major called me. “Have you seen Fox News?” he asked. And there was Monk, on Fox News, talking about how I fired him over religious freedom.
Then he went to the Liberty Counsel, and they changed it completely. They said I’m a lesbian, and I had an agenda. Monk went on this crusade against me. I’m getting hate mail and death threats because of this.
My family, we are Christian as well. We bow our head to pray for dinner. We hold hands and we pray together. It blows my mind that people took Monk at his word. That’s not a Christian thing to do—bearing false witness to your neighbors.
Did the Air Force believe Monk?
They launched an investigation and cleared me. They found him guilty of lying. But then they gave him a decoration because they didn’t want to rock the boat. My commander did nothing to help me or protect me.
How did your commander react to all this?
She wasn’t going to do anything to help me. At one point I went to her to said, I’m getting physical hate mail to my home, emails to my government computer that are threatening my life. I asked if I could change my email address. She said, “No, you need to get a tougher skin.”
Do you think she was homophobic?
When I took command of the squadron, and I told her I wanted to introduce my wife and children, she said, absolutely not. You cannot say that she’s your wife. I said, we’ve been married—we have a certificate from the state of New York. She said, no, actually, you’re not. I had to go to legal and fight her. Legal barely gave an inch and said, you can call her your “partner.”
When I wrote up my speech, my commander reviewed it and told me, “If you slip up and say she’s your wife, you and I are gonna have a discussion afterward.” I was just asking to say she was my spouse like anybody else would say. After that, my commander wouldn’t let my spouse do anything with the squadron. She said it “wouldn’t look proper” for my female spouse to be in the front and center.
My commander also refused to give me leave for my son’s first day of school so I could explain to his teachers that he has a medical condition—something I’d done every year before. She denied me leave when my son had a medical emergency that required hospitalization. She was really unfair about my family.
What do you make of Ted Cruz’s fawning profile of Monk?
I believe Ted Cruz believes Monk is telling the truth. He doesn’t realize that Monk lied—a lot. Hopefully, if Ted Cruz actually knew that Monk lied, he would not have used him.
That’s the problem. Nobody knows the actual truth because I never got to say my side. Everybody kept saying, keep quiet. Let this blow over. I’m getting death threats and hate mail, but nobody seems to care because Monk’s in the spotlight crying on cue.
You were promoted to lieutenant colonel despite Monk’s accusations. Was there any acrimony among Monk’s supporters over your advancement?
When I was promoted, I had such a huge turnout at my change of command. People I had served with way before came and told me, “I can’t believe you’re leaving! We loved you so much! You were the best commander ever!” I got so many accolades and warm wishes.
I don’t mean to toot my own horn. But I’m gay and married to a woman, and I thought people would shy away from me. But they didn’t. They were very excited and happy once they realized I didn’t have an agenda. It’s not a matter of being gay or straight. It’s a matter of being a leader.
This interview has been edited and condensed.