From “The Fighter,” by Sheri A. Swokowski, March/April 2015, Our Lives Magazine, 8(5), p. 14-23. Copyright 2015 by Life in the Middle Publishing, LLC. Reprinted with permission.
Sitting in the third row of the Pentagon auditorium last summer felt different. I had been there a dozen times before while a Senior Analyst for the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management (ACSIM) from 2008-2010. It was June 5, 2014. Earlier that day I was the keynote speaker at the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, MD and shared my Transgender journey as part of their Pride event. Now I was back in the building attending the third iteration of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Pride event since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. While a couple hundred individuals were in attendance, there was a distinct lack of senior leaders, the three and four Star, and Flag Officers that lead each Service. Perhaps the leadership had already made their statement. After all, it was standing room only with the Secretary and all the Service Chiefs present at the inaugural event in 2012. We waited patiently for the keynote speaker, newly appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. He arrived after a twenty minute delay, apologized (something about a call with his boss in Afghanistan) and delivered his remarks. As I listened, I keyed 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 LGB military and LGBT civilian workers. However, he stumbled badly as he tried to articulate the policy differences between civilian and military employees. You see, transgender personnel are not allowed to serve in the military. But I am and I had, along with at least two other transgender veterans in the room. Allyson Robinson, a West Point graduate, ordained Baptist Minister and currently Director of Policy for Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPART*A) and Kristin Beck, the former Navy SEAL whose story was told in the CNN documentary “Lady Valor” were seated in the same row. The event emcee was another friend, Amanda Simpson. She is the highest ranking, out, transgender civilian appointed by President Obama. Amanda is an awesome individual with degrees in engineering, physics and aviation. She was a test pilot for Raytheon Corp before she transitioned. My, we seem to be all over the place! Yet, we heard no mention of the value of transgender personnel in the US military. In fact a year prior I had received a written document from the DOD Director of EEO and Diversity that denied our very existence in the military. The bottom line is our military, after repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell four years ago, still discriminates against employees.
I was born and raised in Manitowoc, WI an industrial town filled with blue collar workers. My dad spent his career as a telephone repairman while my mother worked part time as a nurse’s aide and later earned her license as a Practical Nurse. Although my dad was deferred from military duty because he installed communication systems in the submarines built at the Manitowoc Shipyards, he enlisted in the Army in 1944. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge, was taken prisoner and spent four months in a POW camp in Bad Orb, Germany. Thankfully, he was liberated on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. The German soldiers, who had lined up all the prisoners in his barracks to be executed that morning, abandoned their machine gun as tanks from Patton’s 3rd Div broke thru the gates. I was one of four children, three boys and a girl. My parents died without knowing they really had two sons and two daughters.
Although assigned male at birth, I knew I was different from the age of five, 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. So the following night I prayed even harder. In the end, as a child of the 50’s and 60’s it was easier to conform to the conservative values of my Roman Catholic family, a conservative area, and a conservative era. So 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 have. To prove myself, shortly after high school I became a reserve Deputy Sheriff and joined the military. It made suppression of my authentic self a bit easier. In my twenties I finally figured things out, thanks to articles about Renee Richards, a New York Ophthalmologist and avid tennis player, who underwent a sex change operation and played professionally for five years. I now had a name for what I identified with – transsexual, and later transgender. But that complicated things even more. By that time I was well established in the military, had risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant, attended the Wisconsin Military Academy, earned a commission and had a position as an Operations & Training Specialist at 2d Bn (Mech) 127th Inf in Appleton, WI. Now I had the expectations of some 800+ military folks, not to mention military policy, to deal with. 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 …..
While many believe the military is not for them, I found it much like any other job; it is what you make it. The life skills learned were invaluable, particularly during my road up to and including transition. As a career Infantry officer I served at Battalion and Brigade levels and also had the honor to lead a light infantry company based in Oconomowoc. I deployed twice, although in my time it was to Europe rather than to SW Asia or the Middle East. I also had the pleasure of teaching Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at UW-Stevens Point from 1993-1997. I don’t know if there was a better job anywhere. While I didn’t relish the 0500 mornings three times a week to supervise and monitor the cadet’s physical training sessions, I realized early during Officer Candidate School the resolve it takes to be a leader. During one of our first OCS runs (in combat boots) I had fallen out of formation and trailed behind. While I wasn’t the only one, I was extremely embarrassed and vowed to never be in that position again, in anything. The Army’s Physical Fitness Test was comprised of push-ups, sit ups and a two mile run, but that wasn’t enough for me. With a lot of dedication and effort, I became an endurance runner. I ran 10k races, Army Ten Milers, half marathons, and completed the 1989 Lincoln (NE) Marathon in 3 hrs 45 min. The conditioning has served me well throughout my adult life. It was especially helpful at UWSP, where I could outrun 90% of students half my age. It was gratifying to see the professional development and personal maturity of students grow exponentially as they progressed through our program to become excellent young leaders. I particularly admired two young women who both graduated in four years, a feat few students were accomplishing. They earned their commissions; one went on to fly helicopters while the other conducted research at the Army Lab at Fort Detrick, MD. I was so proud of all our graduates and am humbled to have had a small, influential role in their lives. As I left that assignment I knew our future Army would be in good hands.
I returned to the Joint Force Headquarters in Madison for a variety of interesting assignments. There I benefitted from a couple of mentors who guided me through the later years of my military career. For a second time I became the agency Change Manager for the Wisconsin Army National Guard. Those change skills, in particular, would play a vital role in my personal life just a few years down the road. That job was followed by assignments as the Mobilization Planner, the Strategic Planner and lastly, as Director of Joint (Army and Air) Personnel for the Wisconsin National Guard. And of course, all the while 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. While 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 as a good fit. I chose the spelling because it combined female pronouns and myself (She, her and I). We now share the same middle name. I first appeared in public with her while out of state in Nevada. I remember I could hear every beat of my heart as if it were going to drive a hole thru my chest wall as we walked about the hotel and casino. 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 honed in the military would serve me well in all future endeavors.
A Tipping Point
Retirement did little to ease the call I heard to serve. My former supervisor, one of my mentors, was on tour in Afghanistan in 2006. He mentioned there was a vacant Strategic Planner position available at his location. I jumped at the chance to serve side by side again. I applied for the position as a government contractor. While not getting that job, Military Personnel Resources, Inc. (MPRI) offered me a position as a lead course instructor at the US Army Force Management School at Ft Belvoir, VA. I accepted the position and moved to the National Capitol Region while my wife remained at her job in Madison, WI. This proved to be a tipping point in my life. My hair was a bit long as I reported to work and some of the other faculty who were older, white, male, retired officers joked about the new instructor being a bit of a “hippie.” If they only knew the whole story; that would follow just a year down the road. The freedom of living alone provided an opportunity for me to further explore my true self. I quickly developed a support group of Trans women in the Washington, D.C. area and we saw each other often. The connecting place seemed to be our electrologist’s office. As we all moved closer towards transition, I must have spent 200 hours there having every hair follicle on my face (and elsewhere) burned away! Soon the only time I was male was while I was on the podium at the schoolhouse. The tight petals surrounding me were slowly peeled back and Sheri was about to blossom. The path I needed to pursue became apparent. The question was how to proceed without hurting those I loved the most, my wife and family, and how it would affect my employment.
During the summer of 2007 I returned to Wisconsin to share my secret with my two brothers. Their reactions were vastly different. My younger brother, a Minneapolis attorney had been exposed to the LGBT community during his years in New Orleans, as well as at his practice, and readily accepted me. As my older brother and his wife sat across the table from me and my spouse in Green Bay it didn’t take long for me to figure out he was clearly more concerned about how my transition would affect his life and friends, than me. I was in complete disbelief when he uttered “I’ll have to protect my grandchildren from you,” and “We won’t tell the kids about you.” He later informed me they didn’t tell all their friends about me because “we don’t want to have to defend you.” Shortly after the Green Bay meeting, my spouse received a phone call from him letting her know they fully supported whatever decision she made about our marriage. Almost a decade later, I’m still waiting for a call of support from him. My experience was pretty hurtful, but not unlike many other transgender individuals experience when they come out to their family members. While my sister had died fourteen years earlier, I also shared my news with her husband. His response was “Jill would have been shocked; and then she would have been your biggest advocate.” I believe how we are received by society and family members is both educational and generational. While my older brother had been an educator he hadn’t lived outside the county we grew up in, with the exception of a two year stint in the Army. I have not had any contact with him for almost three years. While that is unfortunate, and certainly not the way I would prefer it, I have found it helpful and necessary to surround myself with positive individuals. For me and many in the transgender community, that excludes some family members. While always hopeful that they will come around, I’ve made it clear we can talk when they acknowledge and take responsibility for the way they have treated me since transition. Perhaps my reaction is a bit short sighted, but the wounds they inflicted are deep and still present. I am reminded of a line from the Godfather, “Blood makes you related; loyalty makes you family.”
On the other side of the coin, my two children have been fantastic and very supportive. They like me better now. Not at all surprising, since I like myself better now too! I am convinced we must be the best person possible for ourselves before we can be the best possible person for others. I truly believe my marriages were doomed to fail from the beginning because I was not my authentic self.
In the fall of 2007 I also came out to a couple of my mentors. I am sure they were a bit apprehensive when I invited them to lunch at my home, but our friendship over the years transcended the rough spots and it did not take them long to realize that the only thing that had changed was my exterior appearance; it now aligned with my internal sense of being. They communicated my change to agency leadership, who communicated it throughout the 10,000 person organization. Now everybody knew! In those early days it was comforting to get calls from out of town and out of state from former colleagues who wanted me to know, personally, I had their support. For others, it takes time. And sadly, for others there is not enough time. I recently had lunch with a dear friend I have been close to for decades. We made it through the tough times of Officer Candidate School and worked together for twenty-five years afterwards. Yet, over the past eight years my emails to him weren’t acknowledged. One of my mentors suggested I call him, and a few days later I did. We chatted briefly about having lunch and I sent him my contact information. After six weeks of not hearing from him, I figured the time still wasn’t right. But thanks to the persistence of our mutual mentor, we finally arranged a lunch date. I tried to put myself in his shoes as he approached the table where I was seated. I knew it was difficult for him and I certainly understood the lack of eye contact during the first ten minutes of our conversation. After all, I didn’t look much like I used to, thanks to the hands of a skilled facial surgeon! However, the conversation turned to families and friends and suddenly he realized he was chatting with the same person he had known all these years. We chatted for two hours, just two retired infantry Colonels, who had both turned pages in our lives. His comment as we left, “This was fun, we’ll have to do it again soon,” leads me to believe the next lunch will be even better.
Transition, and of course, Discrimination
While there has been tremendous progress within the LGB community, the transgender community remains the most marginalized in societies around the globe. We suffer discrimination in employment, health care and housing, among others.
Like many of my Trans brothers and sisters, I have experienced discrimination first hand. In 2007, I was fired from my lead instructor position at the US Army Force Management School immediately after transitioning. Prior to departing for a surgery, I informed the HR Director I would be returning to work as Sheri. When she indicated she had no experience with a transgender employee I suspected it would be challenging. I offered to meet the staff and faculty along with my counselor to educate and inform the employees. The response was, “we’re all retired military officers and we don’t need any training.” In fact, since the military prohibits transgender service, they probably needed it more than anyone else.
I felt wonderful as I walked into the schoolhouse my first morning back at work. I met with the Director, a retired three star General who had served at the White House, and his Deputy. His first statement welcomed me back to help out with the course. His second statement was “We’ve already hired your replacement”. He admitted I wasn’t “doing anything criminal”, and what started out as “my issue” progressed to “my problem” during the conversation. It still amazes me although absolutely nothing changed about job qualifications; I was soon to join the ranks of the unemployed because my exterior appearance did not align with my employer’s sense of propriety.
I have a framed copy of President Obama’s Executive Order #11246 from July 21, 2014 on my bedroom wall. It protects federal and government contract employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Had it been in effect when I transitioned, I would have had legal recourse. I was happy to see the President issue the Executive Order protecting federal employees and contractors. Although the Employment Non Discrimination Act passed the Senate with bipartisan support in November, 2013, it died in the House of Representatives.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, post transition and shortly after being fired, I went to work at the Pentagon as an analyst. I was hired by an individual interested in what skills I brought to the table, rather than whom I may have been previously. And while the Security Manager expressed his concerns to the Deputy Division Chief about getting me cleared, she informed him to return to his office and do his job. There never was an issue with my clearance. One of the duties I excelled at was representing the ACSIM (three star Gen) weekly at a secure, world-wide, Strategic Planning video teleconference. While the tiered communications suite typically had all 70 seats filled, I never needed to be concerned about seating; I had one of the eight seats at the table! In what many would consider an extremely conservative environment, my civilian experience at the Department of Defense was entirely positive. It was professional, cordial, social and based on my performance, not my exterior appearance. I must admit I didn’t mind having doors opened or held for me, either! I went on to spend three years as the regional HR Director for US Forest Service in Golden, Colorado before leaving federal service.
My original plan was to blend into society after I transitioned. Being fired as a government contractor for being who I am changed that! Since then it’s been about making things easier for those who follow. I began working with then Rep Tammy Baldwin in 2008 to secure basic civil rights for members of our community, with a focus on transgender rights. I travel to Washington, DC several times a year to advocate on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. We have made some progress over the years, but there is still much work to be done. In July, 2014 I met with Sen Baldwin in her Washington office. She reminisced that when we started working together only a handful of Representatives had ever met a transgender individual. Now, she assured me, all 435 Representatives have been visited by transgender constituents.
Education is the key to ending the discrimination, bullying and violence transgender individuals face. It is vitally important we share our stories. While over 80% of the population knows someone who is gay, only 9% know someone who is transgender. But sharing our stories is difficult for most. After all, why would we risk the exposure to ridicule and scorn and open old wounds? Yet it’s the lack of societal exposure and education that is literally, killing us. We must increase that 9% figure. We can’t do it alone; we are too few, we need the support of allies. It is essential to tell our stories. Mara Keisling, the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in Washington, DC has said “When people get to know us, more often than not they find they like us.” Society almost always takes the word of medical professionals when it comes to their own health concerns. But some in society don’t realize, or don’t want to understand, that the American Medical, Psychiatric and Psychological Associations recognize gender dysphoria as a medical issue deserving of treatment. It is a diagnosis no different than diabetes, arthritis, or chronic kidney or heart disease.
A 2011 survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and NCTE found 41% of respondents indicated they had attempted suicide. That rate is 25 times than the suicide rate of the general population and 10 times higher than that found in the LGB community. This is a real crisis! While I have never entertained thoughts of suicide, I am particularly close to the subject. In a one week period in November, 2014, I talked with two individuals who had recently taken active steps to end their lives. These are intelligent, honorable, distinguished military personnel who have served our country under the worst of circumstances. Both are involved in healing others, one as a physician, the other a combat medic. They both have so much to offer, I am very pleased they are still with us.
For all those transgender individuals, young and old, who are struggling with why God hasn’t fixed them, please take comfort and inspiration from the words of my dear friend Allyson Robinson’s MSNBC interview last fall. She believes, as do I, God’s message to her is “My child, I have not fixed you because you are not broken. You are just like…..just like I want you to be”.
Every Transgender or gender non-conforming individual who is suffering needs to know a new suicide prevention hotline, Trans Lifeline, was recently established. What makes it unique is the organization is run and staffed by transgender volunteers. The hotline can be accessed throughout the US at 877.565.8860. An additional source of support for those in need is the Trevor Project’s Lifeline at 888.488.7386 or thetrevorproject.org.
In addition to internal threats, transgender individuals face extreme violence at the hands of others. From November, 2013 to October, 2014, 286 transgender individuals were murdered world-wide, simply because they didn’t fit society’s definition of gender. It is estimated between 1-1.5% of the population identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. Unfortunately, we are 400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than the general population. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported 72% of LGBT murder victims in 2013 were transgender and 67% of those were transgender women of color. In January of this year alone, four transgender women of color were murdered in this country. Each November we come together at locations around the world to remember and celebrate the lives of transgender individuals who lost their lives to hatred and violence. Although some may not like to think about it, a direct analogy can be drawn between the murders of transgender individuals, and the recent deaths of two New York City police officers who were assassinated while sitting in their patrol car. All were killed for simply being who they were.
Success, but not Without Costs
Although the diagnosis is the same, each transgender journey is different. The experiences garnered, although delaying my authenticity to later in life, provided a solid platform of skills that enabled me to transition relatively smoothly and to be successful at a high level. I consider myself extremely fortunate; but surviving and flourishing is not without costs. My eleven year marriage and the extended family relationships that were part of it ended very abruptly and without any communication since. There are few spouses able to love the soul instead of the exterior package. My former spouse was a devout Catholic and I suspect that played a role. In addition to the loss of my own siblings and my job, the financial costs associated with transitioning approached $100,000, not to mention the discomfort of multiple surgeries. While I had the health and financial means to pay out of pocket surgery expenses, such is not the case for the majority of transgender individuals. I should point out here that most transgender people do not have surgery. That is due to a variety of circumstances, whether age, health, relationships, or simply having no desire for surgical intervention. We are making strides in accessibility of Trans health care. Thanks largely to the efforts of a dynamic young attorney from Chippewa Falls, WI, Trans healthcare was included as part of the Affordable Care Act. Andy Cray’s success at the Center for American Progress lives on even after his untimely death from cancer last August. His efforts, literally, will affect hundreds of thousands of transgender individuals over the years. In addition to Andy’s efforts, Trans health care is now provided as part of Medicare and nine states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to ensure health care is available in their jurisdictions. After almost ten years, I still encounter health care discrimination. Tricare, the military retiree health coverage denied payment for a mammogram claiming it was excluded as part of “transgender surgery.” It took eight months, multiple phone calls, an appeal, a grievance and a Congressional Inquiry to provide coverage and payment for a basic preventative test. It is pleasing to know more and more children are identifying earlier in life and getting the medical treatment they deserve. While the vast majority of parents become educated, it is distressing to hear of those who put their children’s health and lives at stake by not understanding and supporting them. The suicide of Leelah Alcorn, 17, of Ohio on Dec 28th is yet another tragic example of a bright young light being extinguished, not because she was transgender, but due to how she was treated by those who, supposedly, loved her most.
In our community it’s essential to support each other. We must all reach out and educate friends, family, colleagues, and especially the haters and bigots. We must also educate ourselves. How can we expect society to understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity when many members of our own community either don’t understand, or choose not to respect the “T?” While we are different than our LGB brethren, we share many commonalities: harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence. A two gender binary construct based on sex assigned at birth is neat and tidy. It enables society to impose roles and expectations for each gender, and for many there is no common ground. Science has proven otherwise and we must educate all in an effort to gain support and understanding.
Our Way Ahead
I probably did a few things well to attain the rank of Colonel. However, I often wonder how much better a non-commissioned officer and officer I could have been had I been able to transition while serving. I am convinced our military leaders will soon realize the discrimination that exists and act to unleash the full potential of currently serving Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. As I look back at the Pentagon Pride event, I am convinced that Deputy Secretary Works stumbled not because there was a difference in the categories he covered, but rather he realized there should be no difference in how all Service Members are treated.
Discrimination followed me well after transition. In 2010, a US Forest Service Supervisor felt it necessary to call attention to the hiring manager the name on my DD 214, (Military Record of Service) was different than on my application. Until very recently, the Department of Defense has steadfastly refused to update transgender veterans’ records of service. As a former Human Resources Director for two federal agencies I can attest to the criticality of an accurate DD 214 as part of any veteran’s application packet. There are some indications things may be changing. For the very first time, in November 2014, and again in January 2015, DoD agreed to provide two Army and a Navy transgender veterans with updated DD Forms 214 reflecting their post-transition names. My request was submitted in May 2014.
I visit Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) frequently when in Washington, DC. I am always awestruck by the beautiful, serene landscape, punctuated by the graceful air traffic departing Reagan National Airport. I am eligible to be buried there and have let my children know of my desires for my final resting place. On January 21, 2015, just two years after being informed in writing that we don’t exist in the military, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records notified me they will be issuing a new DD 214 that reflects my birth/legal name! It will be an official document to support my ANC inscription:
Sheri A. Swokowski
Until then, as the highest ranking, out, transgender, former service member in the country and perhaps the world, I have and will continue to advance the fight for equality. The military teaches us to fight; DoD and other organizations shouldn’t be surprised when we do.