OUT100: 9 Transgender Veterans Talk Service, Trump & Fighting Back

Trans Service
Photography: Roger Erickson

“All I know how to do is fight,” says military veteran Connie Rice. “[But] being an activist requires more than just being angry.” That sentiment strikes at the heart of what more than 134,000 U.S. transgender service members began to grapple with when the president announced a proposed ban on trans troops in July.

For many, Trump’s three tweets on the matter became confirmation that the current administration is not on their side. “We have Trump and then the hateful GOP, who are doing all that they can to make us disappear from society,” says transgender vet Donna Price.

Yet, despite “efforts by a spiteful minority,” as activist Ann Murdoch puts it, trans service members still have hope for, and, most importantly, pride in their country.

Related | OUT100 2017

For this brave group, the decision to serve came while navigating their own transitioning identities. “Duty automatically came before self,” explains Shawn Skelly. “I cannot imagine my life without having served.”

Skelly’s fellow service members echo her underlying compassion for the armed forces. “My patriotism does not have an asterisk on it,” says Kimberly Moore, though at times she feels like she is “pushing against a wave just to get rights that others take for granted.”

As dark as the days may seem, Brynn Tannehill insists, “The more of us there are, the harder it becomes to silence us.” Indeed, given the elevation of trans issues into the national dialogue—an unprecedented shift from even five years ago—these troubling setbacks may be temporary. As Sara Simone says, “The strength of America is that she can change.” 

 

Donna Price

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in the armed services? 

Donna Price: Serving in my country’s Navy will forever be the highlight of my professional life. Other than my family, nothing comes close to the feelings I have about service to my country. As John F. Kennedy said: “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any person who may be asked in this century what they did to make their life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.”

How did you personally react when Trump's trans military ban was announced?

My heart was broken for those who trusted that our government would not cut them off at the knees, and had volunteered and disclosed their transgender status.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

I could not live openly for many, many years and now, I focus on living my life as an “Ambassador to Transunderstand.” [I’m] living openly for those who cannot, and showing the world that we are just people—we just want to live our authentic lives. We do not, by virtue of being transgender, have mental illness; our dysphoria comes from outside, from a society and culture that dismiss, diminish, and discriminate against us. But, when we are free to spread our wings and live authentic lives, we can conquer anything.

 

Mia Mason

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now? 

Mia Mason: I’m extremely independent and motived to lead the way for our civil rights.

Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in the armed services?   

I’ve loved serving my country in the Navy and Army. I’ve had the honor of seeing the majority of the world and, through different cultures, I appreciate what we have here.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

I haven’t asked much of them, only forewarned them on social media, [but] as Trump began to take away rights, I asked them to raise their voice and listen to me. I want to help end this injustice and hope others will join me.

 

Ann Murdoch

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Ann Murdoch: Even under the best of circumstance, gender dysphoria is a very difficult condition [and] I would not wish it on anyone. The feeling of not being "right" never stops but, in my experience, it's feelings of guilt, shame and fear imposed by some in society that are the truly toxic aspects of being transgender. My gender dysphoria is just a part of who I am.

I prioritize family time, commute to work, pay my taxes and bills, cut my grass and go to church just like millions of other Americans and I’m grateful that I live in a time where, despite efforts by a spiteful minority, I have the ability to carry on with my life.

How did you personally react when Trump's trans military ban was announced?

I was more surprised that it didn’t come sooner [because] it’s a blatant appeasement to what I call the "American Taliban:" those religious extremists who seek to curtail the religious liberty enshrined in the Constitution. These people who seek to impose their own narrow interpretation of theology on the majority of people who do not share their views.

The purported justification for the ban on trans service members is bogus. Trans people have served with distinction in the US military for over 240 years and are three times more likely to have served than cis, or non-transgender people, including Trump. Fortunately, the military leadership is yet again displaying the character that makes me proud to have served.  They looked at the facts, not the fear mongering of some on the alt-right.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

Visibility saves lives. I cannot overstate how important it was for me to see successful, happy transgender people and realize that it might be possible for me to survive gender dysphoria. Were it not for those brave and selfless people, gender dysphoria likely would have claimed my life and devastated my family. I owe it to them, and feel it my Christian duty, to pay back that debt by trying as best I can to help others.

 

Kimberly Moore

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Kimberly Moore: In 48 out of 50 states it is legal to claim "trans panic" as a legitimate defense to murdering me because of my gender identity. I don't even have to provoke it—it happens, on average, 22 times a year. That makes us one of the more vulnerable segments of our "free" society.

That's just the murders. If I pulled out the statistics about sexual and violent assaults, 54% of trans people have reported verbal harassment, 24% physically attacked, and 13% sexually abused. It is no wonder the suicide attempt rate is so high within the community. It’s like pushing against a wave at times just to get rights that others take for granted. If this were a choice, I wouldn't recommend it.

Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in the armed services? 

I’m proud of my service and share when I can, however, I suppressed my life for the service and it did emotional damage to me. I lived in fear that my secret would be discovered and fought overseas to give freedoms to foreigners that, at home, I wouldn’t be allowed to have.

To me the fact that I'm helping transgender veterans is secondary to the fact that I am striving for the ideals of liberty and equality that I believe our country was founded on and for which I swore to protect and defend. My civil rights are not an accommodation. They are an expectation, and my patriotism does not have an asterisks to it.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

I pray that others will see my joy, join me in the charitable work I'm doing at the Transgender American Veterans Association, and recognize that living without lying is so much better than trying to bury your closet.

Sara Simone

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Sara Simone: As a trans woman, it’s my undying hope that, as community, we can share in the greatness of this country and be free to be who we are.  It’s still legal to discriminate against trans people and fire us from our jobs and, as a person of color, I understand the sting of racial prejudice and the disparities in the community.  When I transitioned, those challenges were amplified, but the strength of American is that she can change.

How did you personally react when Trump's trans military ban was announced?

When I heard that President Trump was ordering sanctioned discrimination against transgender Americans who wished to serve and transgender soldiers honorably and courageously serving, I was heartbroken. I was devastated.

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to meet President Obama when he attended a veteran’s event and served thanksgiving dinner. I “came out” to him personally as a transgender veteran and I thanked him for his actions in helping transgender veterans and active duty trans soldiers and all that he has done for the LGBTQ community. I was never as happy as I was when, a year later, I received a revised discharged record indicating my current name and gender.

Every American who is qualified should have the opportunity to serve, and it should not matter their race, religion, ethnicity, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. Diversity is part of the greatness of this country’s military and it has been since its inception.

Shawn Skelly

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Shawn Skelly: To identify as transgender in America right now means I have been specifically targeted by the federal government as someone underserving of human and civil rights. While transgender people have never been more visible or more positively received by our fellow Americans, we’ve perhaps never been in more direct jeopardy than we are today. I am officially deemed "other" by my government.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

My hope, my outright quest, for both my most recent and current work is to prove without a doubt to others in our community, and the public, that transgender people are indeed able to serve at the highest levels of government, including the national security establishment. That we can be accepted both as individuals and as accomplished professionals worthy of the gratitude and respect of all Americans for their service.

I walked into the Pentagon in 2013 as only the fourth openly trans person—and first transgender veteran—to be appointed by a President of the United States. There has not been a day since that I do not consider that circumstance to not simply be an honor, but an obligation and impetus to give all of myself, and then some, to prove that one’s identity is irrelevant to one’s ability to perform and to contribute to our country. I had resolved, since so many had helped to open the doors I had walked through along my journey to serve as a Presidential appointee, that my performance would not simply keep those doors open, but would blow them off their hinges.

 

Connie Rice

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Connie Rice: I'm just a normal girl living in the suburbs, trying to raise my kids, and go biking when I can, and yet, I see an organized campaign to demonize me and my friends and others like me. I see these people passing and trying to pass ridiculous and hateful laws based on ignorance and hatred. It gets to you. All I know how to do is fight. So, I speak out. I write. I'm political. And I'll fight these evil people.

How did you personally react when Trump's trans military ban was announced?

I was outraged. Trump did not consult the Pentagon, the decision was based on lies and bigotry, and it will harm many people. There are trans people in the military right now. They are just trying to do their jobs and feed their families.

The decision was indicative to me what the Trump Administration thinks about the LGBT community. Sure enough, they've followed up these actions by removing protections for transgender students and trying to change the rules for employing LGBT people. It's disgusting. The military ban has hurt people I know and fits into a framework of hate-based rules and regulations aimed at eliminating transgender people from public life. From life, really.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

Being an activist requires more than just being angry. We must educate ourselves on our opponents and their arguments. We need to build alliances and learn about politics. We need to tell our stories to demonstrate how normal we are, but also, not be afraid to share the pain and costs of transition to show how harmful hateful laws and ignorant policies can be.

 

Ray Duval

Photography: Roger Erickson

OUT: What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Ray Duval: Being trans in America right now, for me, is both easier and harder than it’s ever been. Trans people have never been more visible than we are now, and thanks to the herculean efforts of those who have been in the movement for decades, we have enjoyed many important civil rights victories in recent years. At the same time, it’s disconcerting and disheartening to constantly face the discriminatory and marginalizing actions of our presidential administration. Trans people, especially trans women of color, face staggering levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence on a disturbingly regular basis, but our community is strong, brave, and resilient. Setbacks will be temporary, and progress will march on.

Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in the armed services? 

I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to serve my country, and I’ll always be proud that I served faithfully and honorably, but I regret that the Army didn't take care of me when I needed it. As a trans person, until recently, the Army asked something of me that it did not ask of my peers—it asked me to hide and deny a critical part of my identity in order to continue my service.

The reversal of the trans ban in 2016 brought some measure of relief, but as a non-binary person, I still felt excluded and stuck. The way that the trans-inclusive policy was crafted and implemented only provided one option: completely transition from the one gender to “the other.” For those of us for whom neither binary gender applies, this policy is only slightly better than an outright ban. It still forces us to contort ourselves in order to conform to gender stereotypes and occupy gendered spaces that do not fit us.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be able to join the incredible team at the National Center for Transgender Equality, an organization on the front lines of the fight for trans rights. I hope that our community will be able to secure a more durable policy to protect the rights of transgender service members as well as make gender affirming health care more accessible for veterans, and that, one day, the Armed Forces will celebrate and affirm people of all gender identities, rather than merely tolerate them.

 

Brynn Tannehill

Photography: Roger Erickson

What does it mean for you to be trans in America right now?

Brynn Tannehill: It means wondering what the government will do next to me and my family. It means watching day by day as people gain more and more legal right to discriminate against me, and I have less and less recourse to defend myself legally. Every new horror coming out of the Department of Justice serves to remind me that the religious extremists with unfettered access to the White House will not stop until they have made it impossible to live in the US as a transgender person, by crowd sourcing discrimination, and protecting it as a constitutional right.

How did you personally react when Trump's trans military ban was announced?

Let me just say, the proposed ban on transgender service members is arbitrary, capricious, and cruel. There was no reason for it. The policy was working and the medical costs were negligible. I have 17 years of good service, and was planning to try and get back in to finish out my 20 as a reservist.  Now, after half a decade of fighting for open service, and doing everything I could to be able to get back in... it's gone. Just like that. Because another person's religion says so.

Now getting back in to the reserves probably won't happen, and I'm going to age out before I get a chance to get back in. After losing the pension, being financially devastated by the Great Recession, losing my job for being transgender, and having to pay for almost all of my transition related medical care out of pocket, I will probably never be able to retire.  This has cost me my life's work in civil rights, and my happily ever after with my loved ones.

How do you hope that the work you do will inspire others in the trans community? 

The more of us there are, the harder it becomes to silence us. I want them to never stop calling out how this is not normal, and is less so by the day. I want our stories heard so that people understand the moral, physical, financial, spiritual, and mental harms being done to service members who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign or domestic. Win or lose, none of us will go gentle into that good night.

 

Photography: Roger Erickson
Hair & Makeup: Shauné Hayes
Photographed at Union 206 Studio, Alexandria, VA, on September 25, 2017.

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