“Michelle” is a transwoman who currently serves in U.S. Navy with support from her supervisors. She shares her story with The New Civil Rights Movement via guest author Brynn Tannehill.
Three years ago I came out to myself and my wife as transgender. We have come to grips with this situation together. I have begun to live more and more openly as my authentic self. However, one giant obstacle remains.
I am enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
I love my career, my work, and my country, but I believed I would not be allowed to serve if they find out I am transgender.
Before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) if I had been caught I probably would have been kicked out of the Navy for being seen as gay. When it was repealed I knew little about military policy on transgender people. I just knew they would administratively separate me if I were outed. Still, I started to slowly change my appearance while remaining within the grooming standards for men.
After DADT I researched the policies, and what I found out made me feel like I had been left behind. It was like the open service ship left the pier and I was still standing there wondering, “Why?”
I even had a friend who knows I am trans call the ship’s psychologist to ask if someone like me could seek counseling with them. The shrink answered with, “If they came to me about this I would have them processed for separation. Their best bet is to seek counseling out in town.” Too bad getting counseling out in town is violation of UCMJ Article 92 (failure to obey an order or regulation).
That was two years ago. My need to transition has only intensified since then. Along the way, though, I made a fateful choice. I reenlisted.
If I had not I would have been out of the Navy by now. I would be living authentically. Yet, I am still here. Ultimately, I couldn’t walk away from a promising career, a job I love, and the sense of purpose and service it gives me.
This past winter I rotated to an overseas duty station, and felt extremely isolated. My wife was still in the states and I avoided social contact with others in my new shop for fear they might discover my secret. I had no one to talk to, and every day at work forced me to keep my guard up and make sure nothing slipped.
The solitude was overwhelming.
I finally went to a military psychologist on base. Still, during my initial sessions I held back my darkest secret. The psychologist seemed to sense that I was holding something back, and after the fourth session he asked if there was anything else I wasn’t telling him. Somewhat to my horror, I blurted out that I am transgender. It happened so quickly I don’t even think I knew I said it.
After that he spent the rest of the session asking questions about being transgender. Like a majority of people in the military he was under the impression that the end of DADT meant transgender people could serve openly. He told me that he saw no need to process me out of the military. The instructions say that he is only supposed to report things which affect my fitness for duty, and being trans had not prevented me from doing my job to my full potential so far.
Less than a month later I got a phone call at work. My department head wanted to see me. I figured it was for some current issues we had with some of our equipment.
I was dead wrong.
No good conversation ever starts with the command, “take a seat,” and that’s what my department head said the instant the door closed behind me. He had heard of rumors about me seeing the psychologist, and that I wanted to change genders surgically. Time slowed to a crawl, I felt nauseous, and my mind was in a state of blind, fight or flight panic.
I could have denied it all and said that I am seeing my provider for reasons I don’t wish to discuss. I could have lied through my teeth and said I was having marriage problems, or having a hard time coping with being unable to have kids of my own.
I didn’t though.
He got the truth. I was not seeking any surgeries while on active duty, but that I planned on transitioning after I got out. I told him how much I worried about being administratively discharged for being transgender; I loved my work, and didn’t want to leave the Navy.
My department head told me that I have nothing to worry about because I do my job well and being trans obviously was not interfering with it. He just wanted to speak with me before he engaged in rumor control with the unit’s Executive Officer (XO). Still, the next week left me on edge as I waited to hear how that discussion went.
I shouldn’t have.
The XO didn’t care. My department head told me the XO’s response was, “I have enough to worry about with all the people who can’t or won’t do their jobs. Why the hell should I get rid of someone who’s doing their job really well?” I felt an immense sense of relief. I am safe for now, as long as I have these leaders and keep my performance up. Everyone seemed to agree–why kick me out if being transgender isn’t affecting my performance?
Maybe this is why I was meant to reenlist; to show people that transgender people can be in the military and do their jobs just like anyone else. I just hope someday that this policy will be lifted, and we can serve openly.
Editor’s note: The New Civil Rights Movement is publishing a week-long series of articles about transgender people who are serving or have served in the United States military despite the present ban. All week we will be sharing the stories of real people’s lives in a considerable effort to expose the unnecessary barriers that obstruct transgender open service in military, and show why the transgender medical exclusion is antiquated and must be removed. You can read all the articles as they are published here.
Brynn Tannehill is originally from Phoenix, Ariz. She graduated from the Naval Academy with a B.S. in computer science in 1997. She earned her Naval Aviator wings in 1999 and flew SH-60B helicopters and P-3C maritime patrol aircraft during three deployments between 2000 and 2004. She served as a campaign analyst while deployed overseas to 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain from 2005 to 2006. In 2008 Brynn earned a M.S. in Operations Research from the Air Force Institute of Technology and transferred from active duty to the Naval Reserves. In 2008 Brynn began working as a senior defense research scientist in private industry. She left the drilling reserves and began transition in 2010. Since then she has written for OutServe magazine, The Huffington Post, and Queer Mental Health as a blogger and featured columnist. Currently, she is on the board at SPART*A. Brynn and her partner currently live in Xenia, Ohio, with their three children.
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