The Fighter

A fierce advocate for her rights and those of the people who come after, Ret. Col. Sheri A. Swokowski tells the story of how she came from conservative Wisconsin roots to become one of the highest ranking out transgender officers in the world.

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 to 2010. It was June 5, 2014. Earlier that day I was the keynote speaker at the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Maryland, 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 20 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 current 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 that our military, four years after repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, still discriminates.

Early Years

I was born and raised in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 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 guns as tanks from Patton’s 3rd Division broke through 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, and the next morning I realized He hadn’t. The following night I prayed even harder. In the end, as a child of the fifties and sixties, 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 endured. In order 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. 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…

Professional Life

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 I learned were invaluable, particularly during my road up to and through transition. As a career Infantry officer I served at Battalion and Brigade levels and had the honor to lead a light infantry company based in Oconomowoc. I deployed twice, although 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 (UWSP) from 1993 to 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 cadets’ 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. 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 hours 45 minutes. The conditioning has served me well throughout my adult life. It was especially helpful at UWSP, where I could outrun 90 percent 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 accomplished. They earned their commissions, and one went on to fly helicopters while the other conducted research at the Army Lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. I was so proud of all our graduates and am humbled to have had a small, influential role in their lives. When 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 assignments. There I benefited from 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 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, the 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 50 years, but I arrived at a point where I desperately needed to share things with someone. I had been married several times before 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 20 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 a first person pronoun (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 through my chest as we walked about the hotel and casino. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. My wife and I lived in 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.

OL47.Sheri

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 I didn’t get that job, Military Personnel Resources, Inc. (MPRI) offered me a position as a lead course instructor at the US Army Force Management School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I accepted and moved to the National Capitol Region while my wife remained at her job in Madison. 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—older, white, male retired officers—joked about the new instructor being a “hippie”—if they only knew the whole story, which 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 transwomen in the Washington, DC area, and we saw each other often. The connecting place seemed to be our electrologist’s office. As I moved closer toward 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.

Coming Out

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 LGBTQ 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. 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. Though my sister had died 14 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 by family 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 I’m 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 shortsighted, 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. That’s 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 with for decades. We made it through the tough times of Officer Candidate School and worked together for 25 years afterward. 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 those 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 group in societies around the globe. We suffer discrimination in employment, health care, and housing, among other areas.

Like many of my trans* brothers and sisters, I have experienced discrimination firsthand. 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 with 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 #13672 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. But 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 who I may have been previously. And while the Security Manager expressed his concerns to the Deputy Division Chief about getting me cleared, she told 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 weekly at a secure, worldwide, Strategic Planning video teleconference. While the tiered communications suite typically had all 70 seats filled, I never needed to be concerned; 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 the US Forest Service in Golden, Colorado, before leaving federal service.

OL47.Sheri2

Advocacy

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 now 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 that we share our stories. While over 80 percent of the population knows someone who is gay, only 9 percent knows 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 can’t do it alone; we are too few. We need the support of allies. Mara Keisling, the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) 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.

A 2011 survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and NCTE found 41 percent of transgender respondents indicated they had attempted suicide. That rate is 25 times 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, and 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 I want you to be.”

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 worldwide, simply because they didn’t fit society’s strict roles. It is estimated between 1 and 1.5 percent 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 percent of LGBT murder victims in 2013 were transgender and 67 percent of those were transgender women of color. This year alone, already six transgender women of color have been murdered in this country, along with a 22-year-old white transwoman stabbed to death by her father in Ohio. 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 highly successful. I consider myself extremely fortunate, but surviving and flourishing does not come without costs.

My 11 year marriage and the extended family relationships that were part of it ended very abruptly and without any communication since. 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 for 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 to trans* health care. Thanks largely to the efforts of a dynamic young attorney from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, transgender 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  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 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn of Ohio 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 from 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 middle ground. Science has proven otherwise, and we must educate all in an effort to gain support and understanding.

OL47.Sheri3

Our Way Ahead

I probably did a few things well to attain the rank of Colonel. However, I often wonder how much better 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 name on my Military Record of Service (MRS) to the hiring manager because it was different than the one on my application. Until very recently, the DoD 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 MRS 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, the DoD agreed to provide three transgender veterans with updated MRS forms reflecting their post-transition names. My request was submitted in May 2014.

I visit Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) frequently when in Washington. 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 MRS that reflects my birth/legal name. It will be an official document to support my ANC inscription:

Sheri A. Swokowski
COL, Infantry

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; the DoD and others shouldn’t be surprised when we do.