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I've been out as transgender in the US military for a decade, and I don't have any regrets

Ella Sherman   

I've been out as transgender in the US military for a decade, and I don't have any regrets
  • A transgender soldier shared her coming out journey and her experiences over more than a decade in the military.
  • Finding support in the queer community and organizations like SPARTA was key to her resilience in tough times.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sgt. Cathrine Schmid, an Equal Opportunity Advisor and Signals Intelligence Analyst for the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort Meade. This essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I didn't think of being trans as an identity or as a social group or as a movement, it was more just experiencing dysphoria and wishing I could be free of it.

Going back as early as six or seven, I remember thinking that I would be a lot better off if I had been a girl like my sisters were.

I know this almost makes me a walking stereotype, and obviously, this isn't the case for everybody, but I felt like I always knew something was wrong, that it wouldn't be wrong if I was more like my sisters.

At the same time, I was trying to do the best I could with what I had in a deeply religious, deeply traditional household.

A military presence

I was raised in an environment that talked about the military as a noble and valid life pursuit. Service was always something very, very close to my family. My dad was an elder in the local church, we were always doing stuff that served the community.

I was extremely religious, though I'm not anymore, and ended up going to Bible college after high school, lasting just three semesters. I flunked out of Bible college and didn't really have a life goal.

I did have a long-term relationship with my girlfriend, was deeply closeted, self-denying, and all of that, trying to overcome dysphoria through sheer force of will and old-fashioned self-denial through public service and marriage and family and all of the things that my upbringing had promised me will bring fulfillment.

While those things are incredibly important and fulfilling, they are not a cure for dysphoria, and that's how I eventually ended up in the Army. I needed that structure around me.

A lot to learn

During my first few years, I struggled. I kept re-enlisting, and in 2008, I had my ongoing undiagnosed dysphoria. Because I couldn't be honest with my doctors at the time, they diagnosed it as a depressive disorder and attempted to treat it as such, unfortunately, not very successfully.

I ended up having a brief hospital stay after some pretty strong suicidal ideation.

I remember talking to the doctor and opening up, to what extent I could, about the way I felt about being male. The doctor was like, "Do you think you could be trans?" My answer at the time was "No." The doctor asked, "Why not?" And I said, "because if I say yes, I lose everything."

They gave me some antidepressants and some coping mechanisms for dealing with the generalities of suicidality. That was able to at least get me back on my feet. I started being more successful in the Army after that.

I really dove headfirst into service as an identity and trying to overcome my feelings of self-loathing and all the symptoms of dysphoria. If the Army says that all I need to do is follow these orders and exhibit these values and be honest and selfless and dedicated, then I can do that.

Around mid- to late 2013, I deployed to Iraq, and when you are not actively engaged in the mission, you just sit in your containerized housing unit.

I had a lot of time to myself and a lot of time to think about my life. I was not anywhere near actual fighting, but I was in earshot of things and thinking: "Is this the life I can continue living?"

I remember writing in a journal for the first time, "I think I am transgender."

I got back from Iraq on Christmas Day 2013. My ex and I had been married for a decade. We had two kids together. I told her none of the stuff that I'd been trying to do had worked, and I didn't think that it was depression.

I'm thinking I'm trans, and after a couple of long conversations, it came down to her saying, "I'm sorry, but I'm straight."

Moving pretty quickly

We ended up getting a divorce, she took the kids and went back home to Oregon where we had basically grown up and went to high school and everything together. She's still a very, very close friend, but at the end of the day, what I had at the time was completely unsustainable.

I ended up climbing over the rail on the Tampa Bay Bridge in March 2014. Instead of jumping, though, I called Military OneSource and talked to one of their counselors, and I remember saying I don't want to die but I can't live like this. They convinced me to go back to the hospital.

At the time, the Army regulations still had "transgenderism," which was written as something that was incompatible with military service. The doctor said that as an Army doctor, his hands were tied. He had to inform my chain of command because I had a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and the Army regulations said that he had to tell them of any diagnosis that could impact my eligibility for continued service.

The only options I had were to let the doctor inform my command or to simply out myself. I chose to out myself. I wrote a memo, signed it, and basically said, I wish this to be entered into the official record.

I threw myself at the mercy of my chain of command and said, I don't want to get kicked out, I promise I won't pursue any transition unless authorized to do so in writing. I'm getting help from the doctors. Here's my record, and here's the evidence that I'm good at my job and that benefits the unit. Please don't kick me out.

My command decided to retain me. The commander's guidance at the time was like, "Okay, I'm not going to pursue separation for this, but keep your nose clean because the reason I'm retaining you is because you're a benefit to this formation. If you stop being a benefit to this formation, then I will not be able to justify this decision any further."

He was doing everything in his legal authority to not end my career, and there were some individuals in the unit who weren't pleased with the command's decision. There were some people who were trying to find reasons for the command to not back me anymore. For the next 18 months or so I was living in absolute scrutiny like daily haircut inspections, just to try and build a case that I have some kind of pattern of lacking adherence to standards.

I had a couple of supervisors who supported me, who stood up for me, and who helped me going through that period of time.

After recently receiving an Army equal opportunity award, I called attention to the commander I had a decade ago and said that he saved my career. If you stand up for your soldiers now, then it's going to have positive results later, even if it means putting your own neck out in the moment.

Figuring out the system

I was stationed in Tampa, Florida. The queer community down there, at least a decade ago, was very strong.

I discovered the organization SPARTA in the spring of 2014, which came out of all of the people who were in the organization OutServe back in the day when Don't Ask Don't Tell, the discriminatory prohibition on gay and lesbian service members, was repealed and wanted to begin fighting for open transgender service.

Those people formed their own splinter organization less than a year before I came out. I found a community, and I found mentors and friends. I ended up meeting my now-spouse through one of the local queer groups there in Florida.

She and I got married right after Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, in August 2015 because we had no idea whether it was going to stick.

By October 2016, the Army had procedures in place to get our gender marker changed in DEERS or Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, a large database for service member information.

I finished the medical portion of my transition, specifically I was able to get surgery, two years later in 2018, and I had a unit that was supportive.

If you're a benefit to the mission, and it is going to get accomplished better with you than without you, then nothing else really matters. That's the reason I kept re-enlisting in the first place. The mission is something that's meaningful to me.

Now what?

In 2017, I was stationed in Washington, and our morning formation was always 6:30 a.m. About 15 minutes before I was supposed to stand in formation and salute the flag, my phone started blowing up with people texting me saying, "Hey, did you see this?"

My phone just started exploding. The commander-in-chief had put out a new policy via Twitter that would place a ban on transgender military personnel, affecting thousands of service members throughout the country. And my immediate reaction was, "Well now what do I do?"

I thought back to Col. Cammermayer who was an Army nurse back in Vietnam and made it all the way to colonel. To get promoted to general, she had to have her security clearance reviewed. She admitted to being lesbian, so she got discharged from the Army, but then successfully fought it and got reinstated.

She was one of the very few out, non-straight people in the military, but she was able to finish her career on her terms. Her story kept ringing in my mind.

I was the Army Service lead for SPARTA, and one person on the board reached out and said Lambda Legal is putting together a lawsuit. They represented Cammermayer back in the day as well, so I gave them my name. I have the distinction of being one of very few active-duty service members who have sued the Department of Defense and the President.

We were able to get the ban weakened, though not revoked entirely, allowing us to retain our careers and our medical benefits.

Living under threat

If you've been granted an exemption to be where you are, then that can always be revoked. Living under that threat is an incredible amount of pressure.

It's still less than living with dysphoria, but that was a rough couple of years as well. The biggest thing that helped me through that period of time was the community around me: the other trans people I knew, other soldiers, people in SPARTA, and the extended queer military community.

The queer community tends to be quite progressive, yet the military is very traditional. Being at the intersection of those two communities can be very isolating because it can result in a sense of not knowing where you fit in. The best advice I can give people in that place is that you aren't alone.

If I had to come out over again, would I do it differently? There are probably things I could have done better, but I don't have any regrets.

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