Transgender Troops: Honor, Service and Silence

Featured excerpt from With Honor and Integrity edited by Máel Embser-Herbert and Bree Fram
By Sheri A. Swokowski, Colonel, U.S. Army National Guard, 1970–2004

Sitting in the third row of the auditorium the afternoon of June 5, 2014, felt different from all of the other times I had been in the Pentagon. Earlier that day, I had been the keynote speaker at the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Maryland, sharing my transgender journey as part of their Pride event. Now, I was back in the building attending the third Department of Defense Pride event since the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” While a couple of hundred individuals were in attendance, there was a distinct lack of senior leaders, the three- and four-star and flag officers that typically led each service. Perhaps the leadership had already made their statement. After all, just two years earlier it had been standing room only with the secretary and all the service chiefs present at the 2012 inaugural event.

We waited patiently for the keynote speaker, newly appointed deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work. He arrived after a twenty minute delay, apologized, and delivered his remarks. As I listened, I keyed in on what he didn’t acknowledge—the contributions of the 15,500 transgender members currently serving and the 134,000 transgender veterans who have honorably, and with distinction, served as part of our military services. During his remarks, he addressed the important contributions of lesbian, gay, and bisexual military personnel, but only mentioned transgender individuals when talking about civilians and stumbled when trying to draw distinctions between civilian and military personnel. You see, transgender personnel were not permitted to serve in the military, yet I and at least two other transgender veterans were in the room: Allyson Robinson, a West Point graduate, ordained Baptist minister, and, at the time, director of policy for SPARTA, and Kristin Beck, the former Navy SEAL whose story was told in the CNN documentary Lady Valor. The event emcee was another friend, Amanda Simpson, who was the highest-ranking, out, transgender civilian appointed by President Obama. Amanda is an awesome individual with degrees in engineering, physics, and aviation. Before transitioning, she was a test pilot for Raytheon Corporation. My, we seemed to be all over the place! Yet, we heard no mention of the value of transgender personnel in the U.S. military. In fact, a year prior I had received a written document from the DoD director of equal employment opportunity and diversity that denied our very existence within the military. The bottom line was that our military, after repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, continued to discriminate against its service members. Though we didn’t realize it yet, in just two years hope would be on the horizon.

Although assigned male at birth, I knew from the age of five that I was different; I just didn’t know what it was called. I admired my sister and always thought I should be wearing her dresses and skirts, and sometimes when I found myself alone at home, I did. Like many trans children, I prayed at night for God to fix His mistake; the next morning I realized He hadn’t. The following night I would pray even harder. In the end, as a child of the fifties and sixties it was easier to conform to the conservative values of my Roman Catholic family and the conservative area in which I grew up, as well as the conservative era, generally. I suppressed my feelings and lived up to others’ expectations instead of my own.

I was so adept at masquerading as male that I never experienced much of the bullying, taunting, and physical violence that many of my LGBT brothers and sisters faced. To prove myself, shortly after high school I became a reserve deputy sheriff and joined the military, making the suppression of my authentic self a bit easier. In my twenties, thanks to articles about Renée Richards, a New York ophthalmologist and avid tennis player who had undergone a sex change operation and played professional tennis for five years, I finally figured things out. I now had a name for how I identified—transsexual, and later transgender, but that complicated things even more. By that time, I was well established in the military, had first risen to the rank of staff sergeant, then attended the Wisconsin Military Academy and earned a commission. Now I had the expectations of over eight hundred military folks, not to mention military policy, with which to deal. The stress of the new job, and my dysphoria, compelled me to experience brief interludes as my authentic self. I would purchase and dress in female clothing for a day or two. That was followed by feelings of extreme guilt as I purged everything I had just purchased, at least until the next time. And I knew there would be a next time, and a next, and a next.

While many discover that the military is not for them, I found that much like any other job, it is what you make it. The life skills I learned were invaluable, particularly during my road up to and including transition. Over the course of my career, I served at battalion and brigade levels, led a light infantry company, deployed twice, and taught with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Wisconsin– Stevens Point (UWSP). Thereafter, I returned to the Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, for a variety of interesting assignments. There I benefited from a couple of mentors who guided me through the later years of my military career. I then joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard, where I received several assignments that were rewarding both personally and professionally. Despite my career success, I continued to suppress my authentic self, interrupted by brief periods of authenticity.

As I approached the military retirement window, I felt safer about expressing myself as the person I knew I had always been. It took me fifty years, but I arrived at a point where I desperately needed to share things with someone. I had been married several times prior and had two children, but never discussed my “secret” with anyone. To do so would put my job, my family, and me in jeopardy. Now a glimmer of hope was approaching— the safety net of retiring with twenty years of active service. Although my spouse was a bit taken aback by my revelation, she made a sincere effort to understand. To her credit, she accompanied me to several regional transgender conferences, and we made friends with other couples in similar situations. She suggested the name Sheri and I chose that spelling because it combined female pronouns and myself (she, her, and I). My first public appearance as Sheri was while I was visiting Nevada. As my wife and I walked around the hotel and casino, I remember feeling every beat of my heart as if it were going to drive a hole through my chest wall. It was both terrifying and exhilarating! My wife and I lived a tenuous relationship, never sure where my need to be authentic would lead. I did know that my leadership experiences and the skills I honed in the military would serve me well in all future endeavors.

Read more in With Honor and Integrity

Featuring twenty-six essays from current service members or veterans, these eye-opening accounts show us what it is like to serve in the military as a transgender person. From a religious affairs specialist in the Army National Guard, to a petty officer first class in the Navy, to a veteran of the Marine Corps who became “the real me” at age forty-nine, these accounts are personal, engaging, and refreshingly honest. Contributors share their experiences from before and during President Trump’s ban—what barriers they face at work, why they do or don’t choose to serve openly, and how their colleagues have treated them.

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