On Anniversary of Open Service, 11 Transgender Servicemembers & Veterans Reflect on Nation’s Step Forward

By Adam Polaski • June 30, 2017 • 12:04 pm

This week holds a string of anniversaries for the LGBTQ community. Today, we’re marking one year since the United States Department of Defense announced that it would end its discriminatory policy prohibiting open service for transgender Americans.

Transgender people have long served our country in uniform. In fact, the US military currently employs 15,000 soldiers and civilians, making it the nation’s largest employer of transgender people. Transgender Americans have given their lives for our country—and it’s only right that our country honor them by allowing them to serve openly.

And not only has this change allowed transgender Americans to be be confident and free in their service, it’s allowed them to better access the things that all of those who serve are entitled to, including medical care and government benefits.

To commemorate the important anniversary, read the stories of 11 transgender veterans and servicemembers vindicated by last year’s victory:

Sheri Swokowski • Madison, Wisconsin

“I don’t know if I would have done anything different with my career and my life,” Sheri Swokowski said, reflecting on her 34 years in the United States Army, the last 22 of which she spent on active duty and from which she retired as a Colonel. But when she thinks back to her time in the military, serving before she could be out about the fact that she is transgender, she knows how impactful it would have been if the military had permitted open service for transgender people.

“I basically sacrificed my authenticity for four or five decades – not only out of respect for my family, but for the job that I loved,” Sheri said. “I wonder how much better of a person I could have been had I been allowed to transition while serving my country.”

That’s why Sheri is celebrating the fact that transgender individuals have been free to serve openly and honestly for a full year now. “The ban cost so many people their careers … I’m just so elated that these folks now who are trans and who are serving are able to serve the country authentically, like 18 of our international allies have for many years.”

As the highest ranking openly transgender individual in U.S. military history, Sheri has lived a long and decorated life. But it’s also been a life where she has had to resist discrimination often. Following her retirement as a career infantry officer, she served as a lead course instructor at the U.S. Army Force Management School in Virginia – but when she transitioned in 2007 and tried to return to work, she was promptly fired, with no legal recourse to correct her employment discrimination. Four months later, Sheri was hired to work at the Pentagon as a senior analyst.

“It’s difficult to help people understand if they’ve never been in that position,” she explained. “When the director at the school said they had found my replacement, I realized that my skill set hadn’t changed. I was the same person I was before transition, with regard to qualifications. And while my skills must not have been good enough for the contractor – they were more than welcome at the table at the Pentagon.”

Now Sheri continues to be a voice calling for fully comprehensive non-discrimination protections that cover all Americans, including transgender people. Just weeks ago, she spoke about the need for these protections in Wisconsin alongside lawmakers introducing a historic bill ensuring protections from discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

“We need to help people understand – and to do that, we need to tell our stories,” Sheri said. “It’s by far the best way, face to face, one to one, to explain our lives to people. We need to ensure people are looking at us as individuals, hearing our experiences, and hopefully understanding it.”

Natalie Rose • Austin, Texas

As a conservative, raised in a conservative Catholic family and spending her early years in Louisiana, Natalie believes it’s important for supporters of LGBT equality to not automatically close the door on conservative decision makers or community members.

“You see a lot of blanket fear of Republican politicians,” Natalie said. “A lot of LGBT people are afraid of Republicans – but the reality is that many of them don’t have strong views on LGBT politics—especially the younger generation, and they might actually be neutral or supportive. It’s important to give people a chance.”

Natalie serves in the Army National Guard in Texas. She joined ROTC in 2010, while in college at the University of Dallas, and commissioned as an officer upon her graduation in 2014. She currently serves as a Quartermaster Officer and is a distribution platoon leader in an engineer unit. Since high school, Natalie has seen herself as more gender fluid than male, and in the past eight years, she has slowly begun to understand more and more. While in military training at Fort Lee in Virginia, she traveled to Washington, D.C. a few times and went out, presenting as female. She felt liberated by the experience, safe to be herself.

During the first year of her ROTC training, the ban on open service for gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of the military was repealed by the United States Congress – and a few years later, last summer, the ban on open service for trans members of the military also was rescinded by the U.S. Department of Defense. It encouraged Natalie to see this positive step forward.

“I’m glad that was knocked down,” Natalie said. “I don’t think it’s the military’s role to have an opinion on that. People should just be able to accept people who are able and willing to serve, and who have the aptitude to perform their job well—regardless of identity or sexual orientation. These people who serve openly don’t do their job any less effectively, and that’s all that should matter.” Read Natalie’s full story from Freedom for All Americans here.

Matt Aversa • Manchester, New Hampshire

Story adapted from Freedom New Hampshire

From 1979 to 1982 Matt Aversa served in United States Air Force, first in the air force reserve and then in the air national guard. So when he completed his Master of Social Work in 1999 and got a job at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, he was proud to be serving fellow veterans once again. When Matt Aversa completed his Master of Social Work in 1999, he was elated to land a job at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire

Soon though, Matt soured on his job at the VA. Not because he didn’t love the work—but because his supervisor at the time became hostile after learning he was transgender. Although he got the job years after transitioning and changed his driver’s license, social security information and official name to be living as the gender he had always felt himself to me, some record of his female identity lingered in government databases. A hostile supervisor found the information quickly.

Matt’s supervisor confronted him about his trans identity via email and cc’d the hospital director, effectively outing him to the entire office. From that day on, he said, he always felt uncomfortable at work.

“She outed me to the whole hospital,” Matt explained. “And it’s not that anyone else had an issue, but it being a military culture, I didn’t know if anyone would be OK with that.”

After the incident, Matt decided to leave the VA and pursue social work in other settings. Luckily, he found his niche—treating LGBT patients at the Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health and addiction treatment center in Vermont. Now, he’s speaking out about the need for full non-discrimination protections covering transgender people across the country and in his home state of New Hampshire with Freedom New Hampshire.

“I don’t think, had the laws been in place at the time, she would have been so open about cc’ing me and my director. Now that more and more trans people are out and visible, I think it makes a lot of sense to make sure those protections are in place.”

Kimberly Acoff • Fort Wayne, Indiana

Story adapted from Freedom Indiana

Kmberly Acoff has lived in Fort Wayne since her family moved there when she was in the fifth grade. She works for the state of Indiana in the Department of Child Services. She loves her community and her work.

In addition to her current job, Kimberly is proud of the six years she spent in the Army National Guard, where the training she led was recognized for the excellent training they provided to hundreds of soldiers.

Clearly, Kimberly is the kind of person any community would be proud to count among its members. And yet, under current Indiana law, Kimberly isn’t protected from discrimination.

As a transgender woman, Kimberly has concerns about the lack of protection from discrimination in her community and around the state. Under current Indiana law, Kimberly could be discriminated against in most of the state and she would have no legal recourse.

“I don’t think that’s who we are as Hoosiers,” Kimberly said, adding, “it’s not who we are as Americans, either. It’s about the freedom and opportunity that we should all have as Americans,” she said. “We want to treat each other fairly, and the law should reflect, the law should include LGBT people the way it includes others.”

She is among the many calling for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections in Indiana. She says, “I’m a Hoosier, too,” she said “And that would make me finally feel like the Hoosier I know I am. It affects the whole community; it’s about who we are as Hoosiers.”

During her time in the in the National Guard, Kimberly had to hide her status as a transgender woman in order to be able to serve her country.

Ultimately, it was the fact that she had to conceal this part of herself that led to Kimberly choosing not to re-up her commitment to the Guard. Despite the fact that she enjoyed her role and was being encouraged to continue serving by her superiors. However, she didn’t want to risk the discovery that she was transgender and things not ending well.

Now, Kimberly is thrilled and proud that the U.S. military has at long last ended this discriminatory policy so that future generations of transgender Americans can serve their country with pride.

Dana Fuchko • Atlanta, Georgia

Story Adapted from Georgia Unites Against Discrimination

Before she transitioned to living her true identity as a woman, Dana served in the Georgia National Guard. With a family history of military service dating back to the Civil War, the idea of defending one’s country appealed to Dana’s sense of honor, duty and patriotism. She enlisted in 2003 at age 20 in order to fight in the Iraq War.

“I thought, ‘I’m perfectly healthy and I don’t have a family to support. I should put my money where my mouth is and enlist,’” she said.

Dana served in the National Guard for six years, deploying from 2005 to 2006. During these years, she said she had bouts of intense gender dysphoria – the feeling that one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female is opposite to one’s biological sex.

But she said there was nothing she could do about it. At the time, the U.S. military enforced a strict ban on service by transgender people. If anyone from her unit ever found out that she was questioning her gender identity, she could be kicked out of the National Guard.

In 2009, as Dana was nearing the end of her military service, the Georgia National Guard began scaling down its operations. During this time, her command actually encouraged Dana to extend her contract due to her high performance – but she declined. She was ready to get out of the military.

Dana had a lot of questions about her gender identity and she knew she wouldn’t be able to answer them while still a member of the National Guard. Dana knows that removing the prohibition on open service for transgender Americans has strengthened the country immeasurably.

But she knows there’s still work to be done at home. While she may be free, now, to serve openly in the military as a transgender woman, in her home-state of Georgia she is living in a climate that is hostile toward her very existence. Culturally and legislatively, transgender Americans are under attack. Dana hopes that by sharing her story, she can help people understand that transgender people like her are just like everyone else – they’re patriots, hard workers, loving spouses, caring children, and important contributors to our society. And just like everyone else, they deserve to be treated fairly and equally under the law.

Rachael Booth • Landaff, New Hampshire

Story Adapted from Freedom New Hampshire

Rachael Booth joined the United States Navy in hopes of finding herself and seeing a world beyond rural Ohio, where she grew up. For nine years, she served as a foreign language interpreter and communications technician.

Years after her time in the service, and after 40 years of reflecting on the reality that she is a woman, Rachael courageously told her employer that she would be transitioning from male to female. And to her surprise, a complete stranger in her place of work said, “I will put my job on the line before I will let this company discriminate against you in any way.”

“I’ve learned that there are a lot of people in the world who see and love others for who they are … and not what they want them to be,” Rachael said. “It gives me hope for the human race.”

This fall, Rachael, inspired to serve her community and ensure that transgender young people know they can achieve their dreams, ran for office in New Hampshire, and while she did not win the election, she said that she “was heartened to know that I didn’t lose because I was trans – only because my party affiliation didn’t match with the voters’ feelings during the last election.”

Rachael lives with her wife, who she has been with for more than twenty-one years. The couple enjoys riding motorcycles, canoeing on the weekends, and sporting two beautiful wedding rings they swear will never come off.

Cameron Elliott St. Andrew • Indianapolis, Indiana

Story Adapted from Freedom Indiana

For transgender Americans, serving in the military has historically been an especially fraught choice. Even after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in 2010, transgender people could not serve openly. Thankfully, one year ago today then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the Pentagon would be lifting the ban on transgender service.

For Cameron Elliott St. Andrew, the policy has long made his service a bittersweet endeavor. What made it bitter was not being able to serve under his real identity—but what made it sweet, he said, is leading, training and mentoring soldiers.

“My service is dedicated not only to this country and to my community, but to the soldiers to my left and right.”

Cathy Serino • Linn, Missouri

Last summer when news broke that the Department of Defense was at long last ending the ban on open service for transgender people, Cathy Serino knew how many people’s lives would be impacted for the better – and how deeply and significantly the change would be felt for the many transgender Americans serving in the military.

“It’s going to make for a better military,” Cathy said. “You have these people like myself who had to bottle it all up, and now these people are going to be able to serve openly and focus their attention on doing what they have to do, regardless of their speciality.”

Cathy served in the United States National Guard from 1986 until 1998, before her transition from male to female. As a service member Cathy worked as a mechanic and a truck driver, based largely in Missouri. At the time, being outed as LGBT meant being discharged from the service.

“I was closeted, obviously, and it was a major distraction for me,” Cathy said. “I was always so worried about being found out that it distracted me from doing my job. I was so worried about saying something or doing something that would set off a red flag.”

The end to the ban is of course a positive step for the prominent inclusion of transgender people in the basic fabric of American society – in fact, the news this summer meant that one of the nation’s largest employers was leading the way to demonstrating that discrimination against transgender people is wrong. Read Cathy’s full story at Freedom for All Americans.

Denise Sudbeck • Anchorage, Alaska

Denise Sudbeck is a Vietnam-era veteran of the United States Navy, serving in the 1970s, and additionally as part of the Naval Security Group with the submarine service. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska – where she is working with Fair Anchorage to help preserve the city’s year-old LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.

“I never told a single soul I felt much more myself living as a woman, not until 2010,” Denise said. “The word transgender wasn’t available to describe any of us through those earlier years. A big part of the fear was that somebody could be blackmailed.  When there are no more secrets, there is nothing left to manipulate anybody.”

Denise is so glad to see that the prohibition on open service for transgender people has been removed by the Pentagon. “Not only is it safer for national security, living as yourself helps you be a more effective person,” she said.  “To allow transgender people to serve openly not only makes them better members of the military, it enhances the military mission.  The freedom to be ourselves is part of what it means to be American and increasing openness in the military steps into a positive future.”

Brian Ayres • Indiana

Story Adapted from Freedom Indiana

When Brian Ayres enlisted in the Marine Corps, he was committed to defending his country—even though at the time, he was forced to hide who he really was as a transgender man.

Last year, he celebrating the reversal of the military’s anti-transgender policy with Freedom Indiana. The change meant future service members would not be forced to feel dehumanized or less than equal. And despite the struggles he faced, Brian said that this part of his service—not being able to serve openly—gave him the resilience and perseverance to be the person he is today.

“When I enlisted in the Marine Corps, I signed my name on a line that indicated I would give my life for a country that didn’t recognize me as a person. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘We’re all just a different shade of green, but we all bleed the same blood.’ Being trans may make us a different shade of green than other servicemembers, but it doesn’t make us any less capable of kicking ass.”

Kristyn Weed • Tucson, Arizona

From where she was standing on the grassy field of Chase Field in Phoenix, Kristyn Weed looked up at the thousands of baseball fans there to watch the Arizona Diamondbacks play on the Fourth of July. She held with her a huge blue key, a symbol of the gift she had received from the national non-profit organization Operation Homefront and their sponsors – a mortgage-free home in Tucson.

Kristyn beamed as she received the key. She stood up and was celebrated, living her life freely and openly as a transgender woman, after several years of self-discovery and journeying to where she is now. The home from Operation Homefront would go a long way toward supporting her in her continued efforts to live honestly and fully while helping her friends, family members, and others understand what it means to be transgender – and the many ways that transgender people face discrimination, with no statewide protections in so much of our country, including Arizona.

Kristyn was being recognized at the Diamondbacks game for her selfless service in the United States military. She enlisted in the Army in 1975 and served as a paratrooper and radio and communications specialist with the rank of sergeant. She’s served in Germany, England, and Norway, and in 1990 she medically retired with an honorable discharge.

She recognized from a young age that she was transgender: “I knew at the age of four or five that I was a girl,” Kristyn explained. “But that was the 1950s – I couldn’t say a word to anyone. It was just who I was, and I had to deal with it.”

“I was almost 22 when I went into the service during the Vietnam War,” she said. “I figured that I would go into service and do everything I could to get the girl out of me. Of course, that didn’t work.”

She ascribes a lot of her confidence to her time in the military. “To be working with some of the best trained soldiers in the world was amazing,” she said. “I was a dumb private being trained by Green Berets, and that training – and the leadership and accomplishment that came with that – has stayed with me throughout my entire career.” Read Kristyn’s full story at Freedom for All Americans.

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