From my earliest memory, I always felt “different.” I gravitated towards boy clothing, baseball, G.I. Joe figures and anything military related. If my mother put a dress on me, I would throw a fit. I came of age during the 1980’s in Staten Island, New York. It was a rough experience. I was quiet and meek and very self-conscious. Kids can be cruel and can sense when someone is “different.” I never fit in no matter how hard I tried to. I allowed myself to be bullied throughout my childhood. That time period was an isolated and lonely one.
I am an only child and as most only children know, we are the sole focus of our parents’ attention. At that time, there was no internet. No resources available to print off and explain to my parents “this is how I feel inside”; “this is what I am struggling with.” To deal, I delved into my own “private world.” This was my peace, my coping mechanism. I would listen to music and get lost in comics. However, this took an intense turn when I turned 12. Puberty hit. Now, I was even more confused than before. Not only did I feel like a boy but I had crushes on both boys and girls. Not only that but I could no longer contain the desire to let my masculine side show. However, I keep stuffing those feelings down. My “female” shell was still there. That is what others saw. I couldn’t let my true nature show. No one would ever understand.
Once I graduated from high school, I continued to deny my feelings. I struggled to conform but continued to do so. I felt lost, depressed and anguish. The feelings I worked hard to push down, still popped up. This is not me. I couldn’t even breathe without a reminder that I was born “different.” I yearned to feel at home in my own skin. Secretly I knew what I felt but I didn’t dare utter it. How would anyone understand I am a boy trapped inside of a girl’s body? I thought I was the only human who ever felt this way. I kept this secret with me until 5 years ago. I figured I would die with this secret, unhappy and miserable.
When I turned 25, something snapped within me. I was so stifled that I wanted to run away. Run away from me. The feelings I experienced were confusing to even me. Not until years later did I fully understand that what I was feeling was because I am transgender. I had come out to my family as a lesbian and continued to deny my deeper feelings. That gnawing, intense depression and sadness didn’t end. It got worse. I needed to find myself. Go somewhere new and be around new people.
Despite not allowing myself the opportunity to live authentically, I always knew one thing…I wanted to serve my country. Patriotism was engrained in every story I heard and I wanted to be a part of that tradition. My father is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He served during the Vietnam era in Korea. My maternal great uncles all served during WWII. Most recently, I have discovered a relative who served during WWI.
So, I knew from an early age I wanted to serve in the military. I wanted to do so with pride. It wasn’t until I joined the U.S. Army many years later that I understood that my experiences would not emulate stories I heard. I could not possibly fathom what would transpire. I entered the Army because I wanted to serve my country proudly. I never dared dream it would change my life in as many ways as it did.
The military’s gender binary hit me in the face hard. Everyone and everything was separated by gender. I always envisioned myself wearing a male dress uniform and not a skirt. My heart sank when makeup was applied to my face for a formal dress photo. This is the only photo I have as a reminder of my time in the Army. I served in Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri from 2002-2003. Unfortunately, my service was cut short due to a training accident in which I feel 50 feet from the warrior tower. My dreams were about to come crashing down.
I worked so hard to overcome fears and concentrate on the task at hand. However, the many DI’s and Staff Sgts. reminded me often enough I was not fit to serve. Slurs and nasty comments were hurled my way. I was able to tune it out for a while. I kept my head low. Eventually, I had an accident in the service in which I fell 50 feet. I still get emotional when talking about it. This accident changed my life forever. I remember waking up in pain. Immediately, I began having numerous physical issues. Due to the fact I had so many combined injuries, I was deemed unfit to perform the duties necessary of a soldier. I received an honorable medical discharge. Invisible wounds forever etched onto my soul.
Since my discharge, I have been learning to live with PTSD and anxiety. Physically, I am limited in what I can and can’t do. So, I hid away for many years. I didn’t want to talk to anyone let alone discuss what I was feeling on the inside. How would I ever bring this up to the VA or to my parents or friends? The next 5 years were hell. I continued to deny my feelings but this time I had ailments mixed in to deal with. I isolated myself. I felt so paranoid and anxious all the time. I had constant reminders of my accident. Not only that but I feared everyone and everything.
It wasn’t until 2010, when I found the Sacramento Valley Veterans (SVV), I began to find hope. I needed to be around people that were safe. I needed help. I needed to belong. This local chapter of AVER was my first taste of LGBT veteran advocacy. I was not the only LGBT veteran using the V.A. and I certainly was not the one out there that felt trapped in some way. For the first time, I was able to disclose to others that I am a transgender male. What a relief to be able to say this and be supported. A weight was lifted. At that point, I could no longer lie to myself or others. The depression was so debilitating I realized I had come to a fork in the road. I choose to embrace my authenticity and whatever that meant. I needed to finally address what was plaguing me since my earliest memories. Despite the pain and injuries I had to deal with, I was ready to travel down the road to Self realization.
My connection with SVV led to my continued advocacy on behalf of LGBT* veterans, within the VA system and within the community. I have gone on to volunteer with the American Military Partner Association (AMPA) and most recently, the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA). It is through these partnerships I have found a home and a connection with people from all walks of life. I do my best to take each day as it comes. I choose to live mindfully.
The shared camaraderie pulls me through, even on my darkest day. It is what pushes me through my terrible physical pains. If I experience triggers or “have a moment,” I am supported and loved. It has not been an easy road but it is a road that continues. As long as I am alive, I will be in a state of transition. I am grateful I am here to share this story and let others know it is ok to be you. A life without authenticity is no life at all.
Reprinted with permission ©2015 GayMilitarySignal